Here’s What Aspiring CEOs Need to Study

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Can you run a business without studying business in school? Depending on when you asked this question, the answer would change drastically. During the middle to latter part of the 20th century, it would be a resounding “no.” In the 21st century, it’s a qualified no. However, the question has changed a bit. 

Looking at where big company CEOs went to college (think Apple, GM, and more), there’s an interesting duality. While about half studied business in undergrad, the other half studied some form of engineering or computer science. This may seem obvious now to study computers, but the CEOs of major corporations today graduated in the 1970s and 1980s – engineering was not necessarily promoted the way STEM education is today. Many of them went on to get MBAs, bringing both business and STEM together.

It sends an interesting signal about the types of skills needed to run a business. It also opens concerns for people who studied neither – can they still be entrepreneurs?

Thinking – and building – systems

Thinking - and building - systems

In an oversimplified way, engineering is all about systems. Not necessarily the fancy buzzword “systems thinking,” but literal systems – step one affects step two, which affects step three, and so on. There could be multiple machines or pieces working at the same time, too.

A simple example is a watch: if you look inside of an old watch (not digital), you’ll see many gears spinning at the same time. They interact with one another at key points to move the second hand, minute hand, hour hand, and any other fancy things you see on your watch face (like date or even a stopwatch feature). 

A business is fundamentally a system. Continuing the watch comparison, the watch face is like a business’ storefront or website. It’s the thing customers see. But just as watches have literal gears moving in the background, businesses have metaphorical ‘gears’ moving. One gear could be employees. Another could be marketing and sales processes. And third could be finance and operations plans. All of these systems work separately on their own necessary projects, intersecting at key points in order to make the whole system – the business – work properly. 

Naturally, then, someone who knows about systems would make a good business leader. That’s a possible reason why a lot of CEOs come from engineering backgrounds. 

The MBA double whammy

The MBA double whammy

On the flip side, nearly all business leaders have business education, whether at the undergraduate or MBA level. Many CEOs who studied engineering in undergrad went onto study an MBA. Why? Because while completely technical systems can be built and then left alone do a job – like a watch gear continually turning – human-run organizations have far more complexity. 

When there’s complexity introduced at the business (or “system”) level, everyone in the organization needs help identifying problems, prioritizing, and acting in the best way they can to fulfill goals. All of this requires various decision frameworks, which is the focus of business education. 

Any class you could take in a business program, whether financial analysis or strategic decision making, is fundamentally about feeding into a framework. Foundational courses teach you what the frameworks of business are. Data courses focus on inputs to a framework – the data itself. And strategy courses focus on teaching how to use the frameworks once you have the data. 

This focus on frameworks is why business programs are a popular education for business leaders. When you’re running a human system, frameworks help you scale decision making and empower people, the two key jobs of any leader. 

What’s a humanities major to do?

What’s a humanities major to do?

For folks that didn’t formally study either, there are a few options to take. In most cases, the biggest thing to get over is your own belief that you can’t learn what they did without following the same path. 

Continuing education

Whether it’s a free online course, a coding bootcamp, or even going back to university for an MBA, upping your education is a necessary path to walk if you ever plan to become a CEO. 

Identify your knowledge gaps

As honestly as you can (or getting feedback from someone else), think about where your strengths and weaknesses lie on the systems versus frameworks thinking. If you’re hyper focused on the details, you may be great at systems orientation. However, if you can’t think high level about where systems connect and how humans interact within those systems, there’s the gap to focus on. 

Learn from others

If you’re interested in anything, especially leading a business, one of the best sources of knowledge is people who already lead a business. So follow CEOs on social media. If you have some money, buy books from well-known leaders or leadership coaches. Some of these people even launched masterclasses or other online courses you can learn from. You could even try reaching out and asking for an informational interview – you never know what might happen. 

It can feel daunting or discouraging to look at the current crop of global CEOs if you didn’t study what they did or look like they do. However, don’t lose heart. By taking a look at the fundamental skills they’ve developed – not the degree or school name – you can pick up those skills in other ways. You may be on a different journey than them, but it doesn’t mean you can’t succeed to the levels they have in your own way.