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Safest Path to Corner Office Runs Through B-School

What does it take to become a CEO?

It takes hard work, tough negotiating skills and higher education--especially an MBA or related degree--if Barron's 2011 list of the Top 30 CEOs in the world is any indication. Out of the 30 CEOs on Barron's list, 24 completed at least a bachelor's degree and 15 have earned a master's degree.

Top executive Warren East of the British company ARM Holdings, which makes chips for mobile devices and iPads, credits his MBA program with helping him learn to approach business problems more effectively.

"I'm an engineer by background and used to tangible things, but a lot of problems in the commercial world are intangible, so it was helpful for me to be given some more tangible ways of approaching them,'' East said in an article published by Cranfield University School of Management, where he obtained his executive MBA.

"It taught me teamwork, it taught me how to respect other people who have other skills, how to prioritize and keep things in proportion, and it also gave me some very useful tools to have in my kitbag."

East hold degrees in two fields that are popular among Barron's top CEOs: business and engineering. Other degrees commonly found among the CEOs include computer science, law and history.

Many CEOs attended MBA programs

More than half of Barron's top CEOs possess bachelor's or master's degrees in business administration or related fields, including management, economics and public administration. These versatile business degrees have enabled them to succeed in a variety of industries.

Besides East, top CEOs who graduated from MBA programs include the following:

  • Carlos Brito of the world's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch InBev
  • Jamie Dimon of global financial services firm JPMorgan Chase
  • Larry Fink of leading investment management firm BlackRock
  • Marius Kloppers of mining giant BHP Billiton
  • Peter Löscher of engineering conglomerate Siemens
  • Tim Solso of engine manufacturer Cummins
  • Miles White of health care multinational Abbott Labs

Seven other CEOs on the list hold master's degrees in fields from economics to public administration, including renowned investor Warren Buffett and top execs at companies from FedEx to Ford to Costco.

Engineering degrees a popular pathway to business schools

Another popular degree among top CEOs is engineering. Like East, Jeff Bezos obtained a bachelor's degree in engineering before founding e-commerce giant ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson also earned an engineering bachelor's degree before entering the energy business. Patrick Kron completed his education at prominent French engineering schools before landing the top job at high-speed train builder Alstom, while Dieter Zetsche of Daimler automaker and Marius Kloppers of Billiton possess doctoral degrees in the field. Brito of AB InBev, Mulally of Ford and White of Abbott Labs are also engineers.

Several CEOs at high-tech corporations studied computer science. Reed Hastings obtained a master's degree in computer science with a specialization in artificial intelligence prior to offering streaming videos through Netflix. Ma Huateng of Tencent also focused on computer science before opening the leading Internet portal in China. Bezos added a bachelor's in computer science to his bachelor's in engineering.

Business school best path to success for CEOs

A few CEOs have reached the pinnacle of their careers without a college degree, but their stories are the exception rather than the rule.

  • Larry Ellison of Oracle dropped out of college after two years and spent eight years working various jobs before succeeding with Oracle, the leading provider of corporate software.
  • Marketing whiz Steve Jobs quit school after one semester and later was able to start Apple with engineering whiz Steve Wozniak, whom he had met during an HP summer job.
  • Michael O'Leary of low-cost airlines Ryanair spent some time studying business but left college before graduating. He landed a key role advising the late company founder Tony Ryan before becoming CEO.
  • Bruce Rockowitz of Li & Fung moved to Hong Kong as a teenager with money he had earned as tennis pro and hit it big sourcing goods made in China for global retailers.
  • After serving in the Navy, James Skinner became a restaurant manager trainee at McDonald's, rising through the ranks to become its CEO.
  • Developer Steve Wynn reportedly had a privileged education before leaving college to run the family bingo business. He literally hit the jackpot with Las Vegas and Macau casinos.

While success stories like those of these six CEOs are out there, the numbers clearly show that a master's degree is the safest path to success in the business world. In addition to providing a credential that is second to none in the business world, MBA programs teach valuable business and leadership skills.

As CEO East says about his MBA, "I think it gave me the confidence to do the jobs I went out and did afterwards and so, in that sense, it probably helped me get to where I am more quickly than I might otherwise have done."