Do you need a degree to be a great CEO?

Graduation Caps in the airThey say one in four graduates will fail to find a job. And now the New York Times claims that even the lowest paid office job requires a graduate degree. This just seems a waste of talent and an ever decreasing spiral that both defeats the whole purpose of pursuing a degree but also its value at the end of it.

It’s not an uncommon occurrence but I’m sitting here typing out this post thinking to myself that if you graduate and are full of ideas and energy why would you want to devalue the effort you put in for years by accepting and assuming your place in hierarchy ?

And it led me to think about Steve Jobs, possibly the greatest example of a college drop-out success. I’m in no way advocating students leave their courses to seek their fortunes elsewhere. But I have to ask, ” Why would you want to stamp out spirit and potential innovation by forcing graduates into positions which will slowly grind them down to nothing?”

It’s not academic

And that led me to think about what makes a great CEO. Does it become a question of simple academics or can you be an entrepreneur, create, innovate and lead all without a formal education? In the NY Times piece It Takes a B.A to Find a Job as a File Clerk, the author says, “those who do not graduate are often assumed to be unambitious or less capable.” I don’t think I’ve read such a broad brush and trashy statement about education as this. You don’t need a degree to have the desire and drive to be greater than you are.

But what the article also highlighted was that having a degree seems to force graduates to assume that they must plan out a traditional career and accept their lot in organizational hierarchy.

Fear drives out ambition

One student spent his time during and after college washing cars at Enterprise Rent-a-Car and obviously interviewed for a promotion there. He’s a Court Runner now with a legal firm. Did he not once think about striking out on his own ? Or has the fear of the state of the economy and financial burden of going to college killed off those kinds of thoughts full stop ?

I wonder whether being a CEO and entrepreneur just isn’t in everyone’s genes and having a college degree actually becomes a weight around your neck rather than lift the creative spirit to do more.

What do you think ?

(and if you’re wondering, no I don’t)


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Categories: Future of work, Innovation, Leadership

Author:Theo Priestley

"I had more creative ideas from Theo in 6 months than I have had in 6 years from most people." Theo Priestley is one of the most recognised independent technology industry influencers and evangelists, ranking in the Top 100 thought leaders across Virtual/ Augmented Reality, FinTech, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, Internet of Things and future trends. Theo has written insights for Forbes, Wired, The European Magazine, Venturebeat to name a few, and has been interviewed for many online publications including the BBC on his thoughts on technology and the future. A regular paid keynote speaker and panelist at conferences and events, Theo is engaged for his forthright views and isn't afraid to challenge conventional thinking and the marketing hype surrounding the industry when presenting, never pulling punches to get the message across on how technology can be applied to improve business and the customer experience. He has also successfully organised and run TEDx and Ignite events. Highly active across social networks, he sits in the Top 1% for social media engagement on Kred and Klout and is constantly sharing articles and his analysis that he feels his audience would be interested in. Theo is also active in the startup community, mentoring within UK and US accelerators and sits on a number of advisory boards. Former VP and Chief Technology Evangelist at a Top 25 European enterprise software company with a career spanning both innovation strategy and delivery of software and business change in Financial Services, and as an independent technology industry analyst. Follow Theo on Twitter @tprstly or connect here directly for constant insights on tech and marketing trends. • Top 1% Influencer on Kred (915) • Top 1% Influencer on Klout (70+) • 12,000+ Followers on LinkedIn • 13,000+ Followers on Twitter • Recognised Top Influencer in AI, Virtual/ Augmented Reality, Fintech, IOT and Wearable Tech, Big Data and Analytics.

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6 Comments on “Do you need a degree to be a great CEO?”

  1. Craig J Willis
    February 21, 2013 at 4:21 am #

    I went to university in my late twenties, looking at those around at the time there wasn’t much to be excited about. Many were there as a result of the system they had been brought up in. There were as many sparks and ideas there as there have been in any office environment I’ve worked in.

    Humans are inherently lazy and, like water, in most cases will take the easiest path. For under grads this is just following the same path as their peers. I always had ‘the fear’ because I felt that I wasn’t good at everything. It took me years to realise that didn’t matter, in fact being good at the stuff everyone else was good at was a hindrance, it meant you didn’t standout. The problem with many education systems is that people will eventually, or naturally, find the easiest way through the system and you end up with a group that is averagely the same.

    I feel people need to be more confident about being different.

  2. February 21, 2013 at 6:08 am #

    Theo, I think some of this ties back to the cost of getting a university education. Most students live off their parents, accumulate student loans, or a combination during their four years (if they are lucky, it’s four) of university. By that time they feel pressure start giving back and not be a burden to their parents or themselves by assuming more debt.

    Unfortunately, they don’t do the math very well and don’t realize they aren’t helping themselves by looking for an entry-level job out of college. The tend to head where it’s easiest, blame it on “there’s nothing out there”, and tend to succumb to the evil empire. They don’t realize “something out there” could be them doing something of value on their own vs. taking a job someone else “gives” them.

  3. February 21, 2013 at 7:41 am #

    I think I know how Gates and Jobs would answer this question. I suspect that in all but a very few occasions, the degree gets one into at lease an entry level position, HR is famous for screening for education and ignoring experience, so without a degree or experience you’re facing an uphill battle.

    Lets face it, being a great CEO is in the genes. Look at the tens of millions of people with degrees from PRESTIGIOUS” universities that never stand out.

    The answer to ” Do you need a degree to become a great CEO” is: You likely will need a degree to get a chance to become a great CEO

  4. February 22, 2013 at 1:40 am #

    When I was accepted into college the assignment every freshman had over the summer before we even arrived on campus was to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Interesting book for a freshman undergrad to read, especially when you get to the part about successful college dropouts. As I sat there reading, I could not help but think my school was trying to test us to see who was really committed and who was going to take the book to heart and decline their admission. When I stopped fantasizing in my conspiracy theory I realized that the dropouts mentioned in the book were exactly what the title suggested: outliers. Not that we should not all aspire to the level of Bill Gates, but as it is very clear, there is only one (or very few of his status).
    Now this all being said, I am a person that believes that everyone should do what is best for them – unfortunately society does not think so. College offered me opportunities I would not have received otherwise. BUT, delaying your life for four years seems to be society’s way of saying that you are dedicated and hardworking. A college diploma becomes a way to “prove” in some way you deserve respect. This is the system (majority) of us work in unfortunately. Seniority, credentials, diplomas, etc. We live in a meritocracy. The culture in place is going to have to start allowing for these “outliers” to become the norm and invite fresh, new, and creative ideas to the table when they have good ideas, no matter what it says under the “Education” line on their resume.

  5. Mark
    March 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

    No, I don’t think having a bunch of degrees is a requirement and there are many examples. I even have a very personal example in my family, but as Kevin suggested its less common. The point may also be about where someone got their degree and more importantly than both, what they did with it. I have college degrees, but my relative success has everything to do with what I’ve achieved since than about having a nice piece of paper hanging on my wall.


  1. Wizmo Blog » Blog Archive » Do you need a degree to be a great CEO? - February 21, 2013

    […] Do you need a degree to be a great CEO? […]

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