MBAs add skills for CEOs, but value is debated

Yale University campus - red building and a quadrangle with trees
The debate continues over whether CEOs should have MBAs.

CEOs usually come highly groomed for their jobs, whether by ascending the ranks or through on-the-job experience.

But one factor can be said to separate one CEO from another. Many CEOs have MBAs, deep degrees in business learning. The question, though, is whether that MBA is necessary, or whether CEOs run companies just as well without it.

“It would be easy to say a CEO doesn't need an MBA,” said David Giannetto, COO of Astea International. “After all, most CEOs have a broad skill set, know their industry, and understand both operational and financial management well enough.”

But, “anyone who has been part of an MBA program, especially an in-classroom executive MBA program, knows that the real power of the program is seeing how 30 or 40 other fellow senior managers are approaching similar problems,” Giannetto said. “This helps CEOs overcome the main problem that they face: believing that their way—and only their way—is always the best option. A classroom setting among peers is often a safer environment where they can reflect and change can take place.”

Jeff Duchemin, CEO of Harvard Bioscience, agrees.

“When you are in an MBA program you are put into a setting with people with diverse backgrounds, and I think that is very helpful,” Duchemin said. “Studying for an MBA gives you situational challenges that have occurred and prepare you. The studies that are presented are presented for a reason.”

Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation, finds her MBA “continues to be invaluable in my role as an entrepreneur, particularly when I think about our profits and losses, strategies, and mission."

Other executives feel differently, saying an MBA is not a necessity for forwarding a company—other skills and knowledge are just as important, like getting one's feet wet in the business world instead of being in a classroom.

"While an MBA is designed as one method to ensure CEOs are ready to take the helm of a company and march it forward, it’s by no means the only,” said Sam Riley, CEO of Ansarada. “I don’t have an MBA, or even a degree, but value its fundamental premise of equipping people with a deep understanding of business and the necessary skills to lead organizations that thrive in the digital world."

However, “the key to being a successful CEO is to be ready for the responsibilities of the role and adaptable to all the surprises that can’t be learned from a textbook,” Riley said.

“Education and higher degrees such as MBAs remain an important factor—however, it’s really a narrow proxy for competence that can limit which candidates will pass early screenings,” said Dan Grosh, managing partner at recruiting firm Calibre One. “Instead, focus on a candidate’s emotional intelligence, problem-solving, proven ability to deal with adversity, impact in prior roles, and culture fit with your organization."

Decision-makers “should accept the risk of valuing a candidate’s ambition, passion and potential over their immediately relevant experience or education,” Grosh said. “Some of our best diversity placements have surprising, unorthodox career profiles.” 

“Having an MBA is not necessary for a CEO,” said Seth Harris, partner with executive search firm ON Partners. “It’s a nice to have, but is trumped by strong industry knowledge, track record of success, and recognized leadership potential.”

But, “having the MBA from a reputable school does carry more weight in general,” Harris said.

Does a CEO need an MBA? “Absolutely not,” said Florida International University College of Business Professor Nathan Hiller. “However, that doesn’t mean that an MBA is irrelevant. What an MBA gets you is exposure and knowledge of a broad set of business skills and a network of students and professors who you can go to for ideas, advice, new hires and partners.” 

The differing opinions continue a longstanding debate. One thing is sure, though: Strong companies are being run by those with MBAs and those without.