Is Choice of College Setting Your Destiny?


Your destiny based on college choiceThe article in the Washington Post, The Resume That Makes for a Top Executive, by Gena McGregor, references a new study published this week in the Harvard Business Review, which provides a snapshot over time of the demographics and career trajectories of Fortune 100 executives. The study shows how much the boardroom is changing. Not all students are interested in becoming the next CEO of Google, but choosing a college continues to be riddled with anxiety for those that have choices. The study’s data reveals some changes that are worthy of noting for any high school student (or parent) struggling over which college/university will be best – regardless of career direction.

The study states the majority of top executives now have undergraduate degrees from state universities, with only a fraction going to college at one of the Ivies. Nearly 11 percent of the top executives are foreign-educated, up from just 2 percent in 1980. And however few women there may be in leadership positions, they actually climbed the corporate ladder faster than men, spending fewer years, on average, in each job and taking a shorter time to get to the top.

The research, an effort by professors from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and IE Business School in Madrid, compiled the backgrounds of the top 10 executives at each Fortune 100 company in 2011 — those who might be called the most powerful 1,000 people in corporate jobs. They conducted the same study in 1980 and 2001.

What has interested people most about their study has been the details about where executives got their education. “I was surprised that’s been such a remarkably big deal for most folks,” Cappelli says. “I guess it’s something that makes people think about their children. Anyone with kids is thinking about these roles, and it’s an aspect of inequality that’s very noticeable to people.”

The study shows the education backgrounds of top corporate leaders are becoming much more equal over time. In 1980, just 32 percent of leaders went to a public university. By 2001 that had grown to 48 percent, and in 2011 the number reached a majority, with 55 percent of corporate leaders going to state colleges. While the percent of Ivy Leaguers has dropped slightly, from 14 percent in 1980 to 10 percent in both 2001 and 2011, those with degrees from private non-Ivies has plummeted, falling from 54 percent in 1980 to just 35 percent in 2011.

Why are we seeing so many more corporate executives from public universities? More meritocratic corporate cultures could be playing a role, Cappelli notes, but he thinks it’s mainly due to history. “It’s a bit of an archaeological story,” he says. “If you think back to when the executives now went to school, around 30 years ago, it was sort of the…golden era of state universities, which really boomed in the late ’60s and ’70s. Schools like Michigan and Berkeley — they were building these fabulous campuses, and pulling people in who would have otherwise gone to Ivy League schools.”

That’s not to say elite schools don’t still hold sway among MBA-holders and the very top leaders. If you look at the three most senior executives in each organization (say, the CEO, CFO and Chairman), 21 percent have an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school, compared with 10 percent overall. Additionally, 40 percent of all the executives who hold MBAs got them at one of the top 20 ranked business schools in the country, many of which are at Ivy League universities.

Another way the makeup of the boardroom is changing, of course, is in the number of women. Like other studies before it, the Wharton/IE Business School professors counted the number of women at the top, finding that almost 18 percent of the top jobs were held by women in 2011. That’s a massive swing from 1980, when they reported finding no women among the top 1,000 corporate leaders.

More interesting than the stubbornly few number of women at the top, however, was the finding that women are managing to reach the top faster. It took women an average of 28 years to reach the “top-tier positions” (CEOs, vice chairs, presidents and the like), compared with 29 years for men. Women reached “middle-tier” jobs (executive VPs, general counsels, chief marketing officers) in 23 years, compared with 26 years for men. In addition, women were promoted quicker in each of their jobs, at an average rate of every four years, while it took men five.

Cappelli offers three explanations for why this might be. One, he says, could be an explicit effort by companies to get women into top jobs faster. “It’s possible that a type of affirmative action is going on,” he says. Another could be that the talent pool of women in these executive jobs is simply better. Because we see more women than men change work paths or drop out of the workforce in the middle rungs of their career, he says, it’s possible “the women are actually better because they’re self-selecting.”

Finally, Cappelli suggests, the difference may be due to the fact that there are more women in functional jobs — such as human resources, legal or marketing — for which the technical expertise needed means they’re promoted more quickly. In the report, the researchers call it “riding a different elevator.”

“If you’re going up through a functional track,” Cappelli says, “you could be advancing at a very different pace than the folks who are going up through operations jobs” that may require more rotations or longer tenures at each stop along the way.

Quirks about the leadership ranks at different companies, and what they might reveal about the different corporate cultures, may be even more interesting than the broad-based trends the study found. For instance, the average length of a top Google executive’s career is just 14 years (the shortest in the Fortune 100) while at Hewlett Packard and ConocoPhillips, it’s 32 years (the longest). Meanwhile, some companies have outstanding male-to-female ratios among the top 10 execs — at Target, Lockheed Martin and PepsiCo, women hold half the senior management jobs — while as of 2011, there were still 17 companies in the Fortune 100 with no women at all among their top 10 leaders.

To Cappelli, this is among the most interesting of the study’s results. “They’re all just so different,” he says. “There’s a UPS model, there’s a Google model and there’s an Exxon model. The idea that there is a corporate model of leadership just doesn’t seem to resonate any more.”

The take-away – Strategically narrow your college choice

Many high school students choose a college mainly on emotional criteria. The following is based on a study by the University of California—Los Angeles‘s released in January 2013, “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012.” The 2012 study is based on the responses of 192,912 first-year students at 238 U.S. four-year colleges and universities who entered college in fall 2012.

Strategic Reasons Emotional Reasons
1. College has very good academic reputation (63.8 percent) 5. A visit to this campus (41.8 percent)
2. This college’s graduates get good jobs (55.9 percent) 6. College has a good reputation for its social activities (40.2 percent)
3. I was offered financial assistance (45.6 percent) 10. I wanted to live near home (20.1 percent)
4. The cost of attending this college (43.3 percent) 11. Information from a website (18.7 percent)
7. Wanted to go to a college about this size (38.8 percent) 12. Rankings in national magazines (18.2 percent)
8. College’s grads get into top grad/professional schools (32.8 percent) 13. Parents wanted me to go to this school (15.1 percent)
9. The percentage of students that graduate from this college (30.4 percent) 16. High school counselor advised me (10.3 percent)
  18. Athletic department recruited me (8.9 percent)
  19. Attracted by the religious affiliation/orientation of college (7.4 percent)
  20. My relatives wanted me to come here (6.8 percent)
  20. My teacher advised me (6.8 percent)
  22. Private college counselor advised me (3.8 percent)

To make the best choice, identify your personal preferences for industry and career direction first (you can still be somewhat general but the more clarity the better at this stage). Then research which universities are tied into those industries and are academically highly ranked for the major you are wanting. Look for major corporate donors to a university to see the connection. As they say, follow the money trail. Another way is to call the placement office and ask which companies consistently hire interns (in your major) from the university’s student population.

Carl Nielson is Chief Discovery Officer of Success Discoveries and Managing Principal of The Nielson Group, an organizational development consulting firm that provides executive development coaching, team development and assessments for hiring. As creator of the Career Coaching for Students program for high school students and Career and Success Skills Mastery for College Students and Recent Grads, Carl and his team of licensed facilitators across North America have helped thousands of students find a better way through a career exploration process that works.  Self-directed assessment and career exploration coaching packages start at $399. Local public workshops, distance-coaching and in-school programs available. Call for more information at 972.346.2892.

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