Degrees or working long hours unnecessary to be a CEO or president

Sociologist Michael Lindsay says working long hours or going to the right university are not needed in being a chief executive or president

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 3:14am

What's the secret to training someone to become chief executive of a large company or president of a country? Do they have to be inclined to work around the clock? Is it necessary to have a degree from a top flight university such as one of the Ivy League institutions in the US?

The short answer is "No", according to a nine-year study by Michael Lindsay, a noted sociologist and president of Gordon College, a Christian college north of Boston.

Between 2003 to 2011, Lindsay - a former assistant professor at Rice University in Texas - interviewed 550 heads of global companies, mostly in the US, and public leaders, including 250 chief executives of large companies and two US presidents. He has compiled 9,000 pages of data about their families and educational background, individual work styles as well as their respective leadership skill sets.

Only 14 per cent of the global leaders held degrees from Ivy League universities, while 47 per cent came from other private universities and 37 per cent graduated from a public university. One per cent of those included in the study have no college degree.

Many people believe leaders are usually workaholics. But Lindsay's research showed only 10 per cent worked more than 90 hours a week, with a combined 66 per cent of them working between 60 and 79 hours a week. By comparison, a typical work week is considered to be 40 hours.

Lindsay is turning his study into a book to be published next year. On a visit to Hong Kong, Lindsay shared with the South China Morning Post his insights into what it takes to make a leader and how to hire one in Asia.

Your study showed higher education is not vital for someone to become a chief executive or public leader. What are the key elements then?

Neither attending an Ivy League school nor achieving an excellent academic record is required for someone to rise to the top tier. Some leaders have no degree at all. What happens before someone is 25 is not a good predictor of whether someone will become a leader later on in life.

What is more important is that many of the CEOs I interviewed experienced what I call a "leadership catalyst" when they are between 25 and 40 years old. This catalyst sharpens the angle of their professional trajectory and helps them rise to the upper reaches of the business world. Half of them give credit to a key mentor who helped them reach the pinnacle. A prime example is former US President Bill Clinton, who was introduced to the global elite through [lawyer and US civil rights activist] Vernon Jordan, a close and trusted adviser.

If the catalyst occurs after age 40, it has less of an effect. By then, the person has developed certain attitudes and thinking such that it's hard to transform them into a top-tier leader.

Does a person's socioeconomic background also play a role?

My study showed 59 per cent of senior executives came from a middle-class family, 28 per cent from a working-class family, 9 per cent from the upper class and 4 per cent came from near poverty. This showed family background, wealth, education, are playing less important roles than having a good mentor or "catalytic experience" [that pushed them to achieve more] in their lives.

Many companies have executive trainee programmes to train juniors to become top executives. Do these programmes work?

If these programmes work well, they can be effective, but not all of them are designed in the right way. For a junior executive to become a top leader, he or she needs access, to be allowed to sit in the top level meetings where they can see up close how decisions are made.

They also need to be given real tasks on important projects. It does not work if the programme is just a series of field trips that just bring the junior executives to observe different departments without substantive work for them to handle.

Why don't top leaders need to spend all their waking hours at work?

It is all about using your time effectively. Good leaders use a formula I call "3M+1P" to manage their time. They attend carefully to minutes, meetings, and margin [for down time] in the week. A good leader usually measures their time in terms of minutes instead of hours or days on their schedules, which forces them and their offices to be much more conscious of time allocations. They also minimise the number of meetings they attend, realising that the most effective use of a meeting is to transfer emotional energy or communicate concern.

They also need to create margins of time in which they can be alone to think about the big picture of the company. The 1P means they need to hire a single person who handles the flow of information - emails, letters, phone messages - in their office.

For many, being home for dinner in the evening is important to maintaining a work-life balance. It can be done, but the leaders must focus on the best use of their time.

Does a chief executive in a particular industry need to be an expert in that field?

Not necessarily. CEOs really must be generalists, while specialist knowledge about particular product lines or operations is less important. Far more significant to a CEO's success is his or her ability to talk on a variety of issues. The leader needs to be able to build connections with different kinds of people and to have a "big picture" attitude to understand the wider context and how his or her company can meet the needs of the customers. The most common point of connection that I found CEOs regularly used in conversation is sports. They would talk about football or golf as a way of getting to know their peers as well as those much lower in the firm. Sports have a great way of crossing organisational boundaries and lines of hierarchy. Some female top executives said that this could be hard for them, making them feel like they were not part of "the boys club".

What's important for chief executives in their hiring decisions?

Many executives hire the wrong person. Typically, they hire someone like themselves, but this is precisely the wrong strategy. They should really hire people who share their mission and their values but have different skill sets. For instance, if the CEOs like to go out to meet clients, they should hire someone who thrives in managing the internal dynamics of the office.

Many companies are thinking about expanding in Asia now. What types of leaders do they need?

My research shows that they should hire people who have lived overseas for a period of time, either for study or for work. Such experience helps them develop a cosmopolitan outlook, an understanding of the global dynamics at work in business today. Many CEOs I interviewed told me they travel five times more often to Asia than to Europe. They see Asia as steadily growing. Asia and China, specifically, are the future of the world of business.