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Career Advice You Can Learn From CEO's Who Do Not Have College Degrees

Two People Walking - Talking.jpgThere are so much written about how to successfully manage your career.

I know because I have written a few career advice articles myself.

I came across a really interesting Harvard Business Review article “How CEOs Without College Degrees Got to the Top” where the author Kim Rosenkoetter Powell listed three ways that CEO’s without college degrees were able to reach the top. The three ways she lists is something that anyone can use to help improve their career.

First, how did Kim Rosenkoetter Powell arrive at her insights? She is part of a fascinating research project called the CEO Genome Project.

“The study assembled a data-set of more than 17,000 C-suite executive assessments and studied 2,600 in-depth to analyze who gets to the top and how”.

The CEO Genome Project research showed that 8% of the CEO’s they studied reached the top without a college degree. How did they do it and what lessons can others learn

Become A Proven Insider

The CEO’s that reached the top without a degree all developing exceptionally deep understandings of their industries. They became the ultimate insider with the expertise, institutional knowledge, and credibility that they were able to develop.

89% of CEOs without college degrees “grew up” in the same industry where they served as CEO, and spent 40% more time in the industry where they became CEO compared to their peers with college degrees.

Employers often feel safer hiring industry and company insiders. These CEOs’ deep knowledge and relationships gave them a platform for success that more than compensated for lack of formal education.”

What can everyone else learn from this?

Learning everything that you can about your industry can set you apart from others. This may seem like an obvious observation but many people do not spend the time developing a complete understanding of the competitors, economics, end user preferences, technology, and all other drivers for their industry.

This takes hard work and a willingness to learn. It also should be noted that staying in one industry will help you develop the high level of expertise to be considered an insider.

“If you don’t have a strong track record in a single company or industry, you will likely have better luck at smaller companies than large ones.

We have found that small businesses are open to a much broader range of educational backgrounds and pedigrees, in part because the available talent pool is often thinner. Finally, there’s always the option of starting your own company. CEOs who don’t have a college degree are twice as likely to be company founders as CEOs who do”.

Create A Track Record Of Achievements

The CEO’s without degrees let their results do the talking. Rather than rest on academic credentials, they focused on producing results. As they moved on in the career, their track record became what defined them and the lack of degree became less and less relevant.

Some other interesting insights from the study:

The majority (56%) of CEOs without college degrees in our survey came up through sales and marketing. 
Numbers speak louder than credentials, and it’s easier to get noticed in roles that drive measurable topline results for the business.

Interestingly, the CEOs without college degrees had almost twice the rate of military experience than the overall pool of CEOs we analyzed. In the absence of a college degree, military experience can offer opportunities to learn important skills and demonstrate results in early leadership experiences

What can everyone else learn from this?

Actions speak louder than words. A college education is a great starting point and may help you get in the door for your first couple of jobs. After that, you need to produce. This will become the most important part of your career and will overcome any lack of degree or a degree from a lesser-known school.

Build Great Teams

Kim Rosenkoetter Powell points out that:

“The CEOs without degrees that we analyzed were more likely than their peers to proactively surround themselves with strong talent and lean on the team to contribute expertise. They were humble and more open to soliciting ideas from all types of people, regardless of status or rank

This kind of focus on building a strong team goes a long way. In contrast, we were intrigued to uncover that the CEOs who saw “independence” as their defining character trait were twice as likely to underperform compared to other CEOs.

It is interesting to note that these CEO’s did not have the compulsive need to be the smartest person in the room and saw that their success heavily weighed on their ability to effectively work with others.

What can everyone else learn from this?

Put your insecurities and alpha instincts aside and learn to cultivate relationships with others by being someone that they want to follow. This takes work. I should know. In my earlier career, I had a reputation for being able to produce results but I was hesitant to delegate to my team – preferring to do the work on my own. This was very flawed thinking and it held me back as a manager. It was only later in my career where I was able to reverse this and begin to be comfortable surrounding myself with people much smarter than myself.

The CEO Genome Project results are valuable reminders of what it takes to be successful in your career – be recognized for your expertise, deliver results, and build a great team.

A special thanks to Kim Rosenkoetter Powell, a principal at ghSmart and a co-leader of the CEO Genome Project. She is also a coauthor of the forthcoming book The CEO Next Door (Crown Publishing, 2018).