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Not Merely a Matter of Degree

How education both informs and misleads about leader skills

Do advanced degrees enhance leader performance? While technical skills may skyrocket, leadership skills vary among the varying degree paths, not necessarily setting everyone on a path to management success.

“While stereotypes abound about certain degree paths, research exploring how degrees translate into rigorously assessed leaders skills is limited. We answer two questions about the educational background of leaders: How do skill profiles vary by educational degree? What skill advantages do MBA graduates exhibit?”

Not Merely a Matter of Degree

Which Degree Investments Pay Off in Stronger Skills?

A leader’s educational degree, though often earned long before the person reaches upper management, remains a potentially powerful influence due to the knowledge and skill acquired through this formative experience. Degrees also are used as proxy variables, with assumed insight into a leader’s capabilities, and are closely linked to compensation a decade into one’s career. However, while stereotypes abound about certain degrees (e.g., IT, humanities, MBAs), research on how degrees translate into rigorously assessed leader skills is limited. Our research answers two questions about the educational background of leaders:

  • How do skill profiles vary by highest educational degree?
  • What skill advantages do MBA graduates exhibit?

Evidence

The trends in the “Top-and Bottom-Ranked” graphic illustrate skill gaps and untapped potential in many pools.

Among the largest skill discrepancies are leaders with engineering degrees who face a heavy disadvantage: they were near the bottom in proficiency for six of the eight assessed competencies.

Business majors—the most common degree across all senior leaders assessed—outperformed other degrees on five of eight skill areas. However, a follow-up analysis comparing undergraduate and graduate (e.g., MBA) business degree holders showed that they diverged on several leader skills. Results are presented in the “Skills for MBA” graphic.

Humanities graduates struggled with business savvy and financial acumen but outperformed other degrees in many skills, and did so through strengths not only in interpersonal competencies (such as influence), but also in strong performance in results orientation and entrepreneurship. Many humanities programs incorporate debating, communicating, and critical thinking, which would contribute to well-rounded graduates in these fields.

Those with law degrees, nearly all with advanced degrees, showed strong financial acumen and business savvy. However, they were weaker than the other graduates in three skills reflecting a passionate pursuit of outcomes: driving for execution, driving for results, and inspiring excellence. Natural science, social science, and IT graduates were near average in most leadership skills, though in a different pattern from each other. Notably, IT was top among all degrees for driving execution.

Action

  1. Challenge—and encourage others to reevaluate—long-held assumptions based on education. Though some bear true, many other stereotypes are wholly unfounded when compared to reality. .
  2. Balance the critical technical expertise brought by new and advancing leaders due to their educational backgrounds, with awareness of common skill gaps that, if left unchecked, will curtail their overall effectiveness as leaders.
  3. Align talent programs to take advantage of the strong management skills of MBA graduates, while remedying any weaknesses (compared to undergraduate business majors) on the interpersonal aspects of leadership. Though management skills are consistently higher for MBA graduates, several other key leader skills show the opposite pattern (see “Skills for MBA” graphic).
  4. Perhaps because of these gaps, several educational institutions have begun incorporating assessments into their MBA curricula as a gauge of the leadership skill growth from the program.
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