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Degree from top school guarantees nothing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Friday, 05 September, 2014, 5:47pm

The competition to attend Oxford and Cambridge universities in Britain is getting stiffer. The British Council in Hong Kong reports that 6,753 applications had been sent to British colleges and universities by September 1, an increase of 7.9 per cent over the first eight months of last year.

Clearly, more and more applicants have their eyes on top-tier colleges, which also include the Ivy League institutions in the US. But although academic qualification serves as a source of differentiation among the millions of graduates entering the global labour market each year, there is no way to guarantee success just by getting a degree from these universities.

A recent release from Bo Le Associates, a leading recruiter in Hong Kong, cited international surveys showing that 11 out of the 36 in this year's Fortune 100 CEOs list who have master's of business administration degrees received them from less prestigious or public schools. Three top US examples are Douglas McMillon of Wal-Mart Stores (University of Tulsa in Oklahoma), John Hammergren of the medical and scientific supplies firm McKesson (Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio), and John Stumpf of Wells Fargo bank (University of Minnesota).

Experience and expertise count more than academic background in becoming a CEO, Bo Le points out, adding that personal qualities are also of immense value. It cited a study by the University of New Hampshire in 2010 that concluded there was a lack of correlation between the CEO's education and the company's long-term performance. So, although a degree from a top-tier university might get the graduate their first job or two, it's certainly no key to reaching the top of the corporate ladder.

Neither does a high IQ guarantee executive success. Research by the Carnegie Institute of Technology shows that a remarkable 85 per cent of an individual's financial success is due to his or her personality and interpersonal skills, whereas IQ and technical skills accounted for only 15 per cent.

The lifelong journey of learning and growth really begins out in the business world

Confirming the importance of personal attributes, a study by National University of Singapore found that humble CEOs who were open to feedback and focused on others' welfare were more likely to have top- and mid-level managers who felt empowered to do their jobs and collaborate with others.

It takes more than bold vision to successfully lead an enterprise. The best leaders know they need to embrace diversity and exhibit the cultural intelligence required to seize new opportunities for growth and sustainability. A place at a top institution may give one a head start, but the lifelong journey of learning and growth really begins out in the business world, and it is often besieged by adversity.

What's more, it makes no difference whether one is an aspiring CEO or a low-ranking technician. Personal factors affect the crucial decision-making process and other elements such as team building far more than the profession. This explains the value of the whole-person education openly embraced by colleges and universities nowadays. Part of the purpose of expanding the undergraduate curriculum to four years in 2012 is to broaden students' exposure to life, not just to give them knowledge.

More university students are now involved in exchanges, raising their awareness of other cultures or increasing their so-called cultural literacy. But much more is needed to cultivate our future leaders. In an interconnected world subject to diverse influences from social media and the internet, schools need wisdom and prioritising to design a balanced curriculum.

But students and families must also realise that a place at Oxford or Yale isn't a guarantee of anything. What matters is to take learning into your own hands and decide what to do and what not to do.

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