Would you be surprised to learn that 70% of the world’s top CEOs don’t have MBAs? Or that nearly a third of them actually have engineering degrees instead?
The Harvard Business Review recently released their list of the 100 best-performing CEOs in the world, basing their list on how each company had performed in 2013.
The final tally resulted in 100 CEOs who helped grow their company by (at the very least) thirteen billion dollars.
This list showed an interesting trend: although some have MBAs, most don’t. Only twenty-nine of the top CEOs have an MBA, but what’s more interesting is the number of these CEOs who have an engineering degree.
Of the top 100, twenty-four have degrees in engineering while six CEOs have degrees in engineering and business administration. The percent grows even higher when you look at just the top ten: a full 30% have engineering degrees. 
One question remains unaddressed by the HBR report: why do engineers make the best CEOs? They’re just as likely as MBAs to be the CEOs of a major company, but that flies in the face of stereotypes of engineers (and in the face of a recent ASQ survey).
One suggestion is that engineers learn to be more pragmatic and practical than their business school counterparts.
The dean of Harvard Business School says “Engineering is what works, and it breeds in you an ethos of building things that work—whether it’s a machine or a structure or an organization.” He goes on to say, “Engineering also teaches you to try to do things efficiently and eloquently, with reliable outcomes, and with a margin of safety…these are principles that can be deeply important when you think about organizations.” 
James Citrin says that engineers have “architectural thinking and logical problem solving.” These traits can make a board of directors feel like an engineer is a safe bet for promotion or for being hired in from outside the company. 
Yasser Al-Saleh goes so far as to say that “engineering has long been ranked as the most common undergraduate degree among Fortune 500 CEOs” and says this is due to their “attention to detail, problem solving, numeracy, and risk management analysis.” This combination of skills, learned and honed throughout engineering school, are invaluable skills to have as a CEO. 
Cheryl Birdsong-Dyer, responding directly to that ASQ survey, interviewed engineers to see how they feel about the claim that they make bad CEOs:
“Problem solving is at the root of engineering. That is at the foundation of what a CEO does.”
“Engineering skills include analytical thinking and problem solving, which are essential for being in a leadership position.”
“Engineers are more organized and logical thinkers. They reason through the consequences of a decision before making a commitment.”
These quotes show that engineers have some enduring qualities that can really help them succeed in leading a company to wild success. 
The number one CEO this year is Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. He used skills garnered at Princeton (where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Engineering, not an MBA) to guide his company to a 140 billion dollar growth in 2013. He did all of this without a business degree, proving that you can use engineering skills to become amazingly successful even without formal business training.
If you’re an engineer but you’ve never thought about being a CEO before because you don’t have an MBA—are you feeling inspired now?
Share this Image On Your Site
Harvard Business Review “The Best-Performing CEOs in the World” by Adi Ignatius.
Knowledge INSEAD “Why Engineers Make Great CEOs” by Yasser Al-Saleh.
The Institute “Engineers are Not Good Leaders? We Beg to Differ” by Cheryl Birdsong-Dyer.
Interested in engineering? Click to read about kids in STEM.