There are always exceptions to the rule - the Mark Zuckerbergs and Sergey Brins who, one way or another, find a shortcut to the top of the business world.
But for the majority of today's rising stars, the best path to a position as one of tomorrow's corporate leaders is via an MBA or similar programme that provides all the essentials for career success.
'Managers cannot rely on their own experience to keep up with the pace of change,' says Professor Didier Guillot, director of the OneMBA programme at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK). 'Formal education helps them update their business and management knowledge, stay at the forefront of innovation, and build a career at the global level.'
In structuring an appropriate curriculum, Guillot notes there are three key priorities. The first is flexibility to ensure that students, who may already hold senior positions and travel for business, can fit in classes, coursework and week-long residential programmes.
The second is relevance. Those who sign up expect to learn about the most sophisticated management tools and how to apply them in different business contexts. They want global thinking, regional perspectives, and insights that point to new trends and developments.
And the third is access, because business everywhere depends on who you know as well as what you know. It is, therefore, essential to create opportunities for students to expand their personal network through contact with alumni, corporate leaders in diverse fields, and counterparts in other programmes around the world.
'Our OneMBA programme is run in a partnership format with four other business schools,' Guillot says. 'Each is at the forefront in their region and has a functional area of expertise.'
He adds that such co-operation makes it possible to keep closely in touch with economic, academic and entrepreneurial developments in both established and emerging markets.
Some assignments involve collaboration among students on four continents, obviously from a variety of professional and cultural backgrounds.
'Few anticipate the difficulty of running a global team and they 'suffer' through the process,' Guillot says. 'But they learn how to set up and manage things very efficiently - a necessary skill when business is so international. Afterwards, students talk about both expected and unexpected benefits from the experience.'
As general advice for anyone weighing up MBA programmes, Guillot stresses the importance of starting out with clear objectives.
Some courses, with more of a local or China focus, may suit candidates whose career ambitions are similarly defined.
Besides assessing the balance of core courses, it also makes sense to consider electives, student diversity, and the strength of the alumni network. 'Diversity in the classroom improves the quality of the learning process and of the outcomes,' Guillot says. 'It is always beneficial to engage with people who have experienced significantly different challenges.'
Professor Steven DeKrey, senior associate dean and MBA programme director at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) Business School, encourages all prospective students to conduct in-depth research. In choosing a course, they are making both an academic and a business decision, he adds. Put succinctly, they want to be sure to get value for money and feel the time spent has been well invested.
'Every programme has its strengths and focuses, so students should check everything from the curriculum and teaching approach to culture and career support,' DeKrey says. 'You want to find a good match and make sure it offers what you are looking for in terms of career development.'
As evidence of the impact the HKUST programme can have, income levels tell a great deal. Statistics compiled by the school show that most graduates secure a big salary increment within months of completing the course. Close to 40 per cent report an increase of more than 75 per cent in basic salary.
A less concrete but equally important sign of success is the informal feedback from graduates. Typically, they talk about having gained all-round business skills, a wider perspective, and greater confidence when it comes to decision-making and working in a multinational environment.
'The programme is designed to give students a strong foundation for long-term success,' DeKrey says. 'It requires rigorous study with an emphasis on creativity, analytical thinking, teamwork and responsible leadership.'
He adds that, in the eyes of many employers, formal business education is becoming a basic job requirement for executives with ambitions of advancing beyond the ranks of middle management.
Increasingly, an MBA is the key that opens doors to promotion, overseas assignments, and switching between sectors.
'Students learn from cases in numerous other industries and see how to apply that knowledge,' DeKrey says. 'And by interacting with people of different nationalities and backgrounds, they develop better communication and teamwork skills.'Topics: Education Professor Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Professor Master of Business Administration Professor Master of Business Administration