What Degree is Best for Becoming a CEO?

What Degree is Best for Becoming a CEO?

Key Takeaways

  • CEOs run the day-to-day operations and oversee the long-term goals of businesses.
  • A successful CEO must demonstrate excellent management and leadership skills.
  • CEO roles are often attained by pursuing an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree.

The chief executive officer (CEO) is the most coveted position of ambitious business leaders. Among the C-suite executive roles within a company, CEO, CFO, and COO, the CEO is widely regarded as the position that garners the most money, power, and responsibility within an organization. However, since this is a high-level role in large-scale companies, the route to becoming a CEO can be difficult and grueling.

What is a Chief Executive Officer?

So what does the title Chief Executive Officer actually mean? As the top-ranking executive position in companies, the role of a CEO carries a significant amount of prestige and respect. In large-scale companies, this esteemed position is appointed by the board of directors and shareholders. However, in small businesses—particularly family businesses—the honor of being a CEO often falls to the founders.

The primary responsibilities of a CEO include:

  • Interacting and coordinating with the public, regulatory bodies, and shareholders
  • Collaborating closely with the board members to specify the objectives of the business
  • Giving the business direction and putting its vision and objectives into practice
  • Determining the potential resources the entire organization requires
  • Mentoring and assessing the work of other corporate leaders
  • Managing the short- and long-term strategies of the business
  • Ensuring the business complies with a certain standard of corporate social responsibility

Depending on the CEO’s experience, they may have held leadership positions including managing director, president, chief operating officer (COO), or chief financial officer (CFO).

If you ask C-suite executives what you need to become a CEO, you will likely get different answers. Some say you’d need a Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree and long hours at the job. On the other hand, some executives will say that you’ll only need a bachelor’s degree, a good work ethic, and a broad professional network. These answers are neither right nor wrong.

That being said, an MBA is among the top degrees for people seeking a CEO position. Times are changing, and the landscape of executive leadership is evolving. Obviously earning an MBA doesn’t guarantee a position as CEO, but in an increasingly competitive job market, it may be what sets you apart from the competition.

According to Forbes Magazine, where you attend school for your bachelor’s degree isn’t as important as what college major you choose to pursue. However, the more prestigious college you choose for graduate school, the better, as graduates of the Ivy League schools are more likely to become CEO of a company.

If you are just beginning your college journey, but think that you have what it takes to become a CEO, attending an affordable college or university for your bachelor’s degree may allow you to attend a more prestigious college for your graduate degree. In fact, an affordable online degree may be a good option that will allow working professionals to earn a degree while managing their career and family responsibilities.

If you want to find out which US schools have produced the most CEO’s, check out which colleges have the most alumni who are CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies.

young business professional sitting at a desk
Back to Top

5 Best Degrees for Becoming a CEO

Each of these majors is a great stepping stone for aspiring CEOs as they offer unique skills and perspectives that can contribute to effective leadership. Choosing which degree best increases your chances of becoming a CEO depends on your career goals and the specific industry you aim to lead.

  1. 1

    Business Administration

    Business administration describes managing and overseeing a business, firm, or organization’s day-to-day operations and long-term objectives and projects. The business administration/business management degree is the most popular for becoming a CEO. This major is mainly aimed at helping professionals develop leadership and management skills for operating a business in various industries.

    An undergraduate degree in business administration equips students with a strong educational foundation in general business concepts. While you can get the necessary knowledge and skills to work in business operations, this degree level might not be enough to become a CEO—unless you’re an heir to the company.

    Thus, many business professionals pursue a graduate degree, particularly a Master of Business Administration (MBA), to climb the corporate ladder. Most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies possess an MBA.

    But because an increasing number of people are getting their MBAs, competition is harder than ever. Most often, to stand out in a pool of applicants, you must graduate from a prominent US business school. Harvard University, Stanford University, and Columbia University are examples of top business schools in the US.

    Best Online Bachelor’s Degree Programs for Business Administration

    Best Online Executive MBA Degree Programs

  2. 2


    Most people perceive law as exclusive to those who aspire to work for corporations or become practicing attorneys. However, the landscape is evolving, and many companies and organizations recognize the advantages of having CEOs or business executives with extensive knowledge of the law.

    Regardless of their size, companies must adhere to the law and regulations, making legal knowledge a powerful tool in business. Legal experience makes you more capable of assisting a business in avoiding legal pitfalls, handling potential legal problems, and guiding the organization toward more favorable results.

    A study published by Harvard concluded that firms run by lawyers are less likely to experience litigation. Furthermore, another study found that companies with a lawyer as the CEO have more stock market liquidity than companies run by non-lawyers since the lawyer is thought to lower firm risk.

    You can strategically pursue business law degrees. These degrees offer students a comprehensive understanding of the legal system, enabling them to develop specialized focus areas for their careers. You can also pursue a Juris Doctor.

    Best Online Bachelor’s in Law and Legal Studies

  3. 3

    Political Science

    Political science and CEO careers overlap in several ways. A political science major studies societal power dynamics and structures, which applies to CEO careers where understanding organizational power dynamics is crucial. This major lays the groundwork for understanding the larger social and political environment, which is advantageous when negotiating complicated power relationships with stakeholders within their own companies and in the larger business community.

    Another benefit of obtaining a political science degree is polishing excellent communication abilities and comprehension of decisions and leadership that can influence workplace culture. Political science degrees will train you to evaluate and interpret data through research, surveys, and data analysis. These skills are essential when data-driven decisions can help to boost company sales.

    Best Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities for Political Science Degrees

  4. 4


    An undergraduate degree in economics is another great degree for those who want to become a CEO. You are required to be proficient at problem-solving and understanding intricate data and industry trends. This major teaches students how to evaluate risks, analyze data, and make well-informed judgments.

    Another major benefit of an economics degree is it delves into international trade, globalization, and economic policy impact, which modern CEOs must be proficient in. These topics will help you become qualified for multinational corporations. Andrew Witty, the influential CEO of UnitedHealth Group, has a bachelor’s degree in economics.

    Best Online Bachelor’s of Economics Degrees

    Best Online MBA in Economics Degrees

  5. young business professional standing in an office

  6. 5


    This might surprise many, but a degree in engineering has proven to be among the top degrees of multinational companies. The demand for skilled engineers has soared. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data reveal engineering occupations are rapidly increasing, making it one of the top choices for multinational companies across various industries.

    Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, has an engineering degree.

    An engineering degree offers a strong educational foundation in problem-solving, analytical thinking, and technical skills required for designing innovative solutions and adapting to diverse industries.

    Graduates are sought after for management, finance, and entrepreneurship roles, as their systematic approach to problems and strong understanding of technology makes them valuable assets. However, this degree is best suited for aspiring professionals within the engineering industry.

    Find out why so many engineering majors become CEO’s.

    Best Online Bachelor’s of Electrical and Computer Engineering Degree

Back to Top

Key Skills for Effective CEOs

Business operations are increasingly becoming more competitive today, with small and large organizations striving to stay ahead. The modern-day CEO’s DNA quickly evolves as firms operate in a dynamic and competitive environment. In this technologically driven landscape, aspiring CEOs need to double their skills and knowledge in running a company.

Competing for a C-suite position requires more than just formal education. It requires advanced skills in all business facets, from human resources to IT. There will be many CEO applicants as the career pyramid narrows at the top, and it’s harder to compete.

A substantial amount of research has been done on the characteristics, competencies, and skills of future CEOs. Here are the necessary skills that will increase your chances of becoming a CEO:


Strong leadership skills go beyond technical expertise and strategic thinking. A successful CEO has high social intelligence and is very adaptable. According to research, around one-third of leaders are born, and the other two-thirds are created.

Furthermore, a leader must possess a combination of innate qualities. They must be extroverted, assertive, and empathetic. Nevertheless, experience, education, training, and self-improvement are just as crucial.


With charisma, CEO’s can easily captivate and influence personnel, which promotes a favorable and cooperative work atmosphere. This trait is especially crucial during periods of transition or unpredictability since it fosters confidence and trust among stakeholders, customers, and staff.

Financial Management

Chief executive officers need to be well-versed in finance and money management. These business executives are expected to be competent in allocating the company’s funds and resources and capable of making well-informed judgments that minimize risk and optimize returns.

Market and Customer Knowledge

Becoming a CEO means knowing what your particular market needs to promote your goods, products, and services successfully. This skill refers to possessing an unparalleled comprehension of your product’s market fit, its competitive advantages over other offerings, and your target customers.

Creativity and Innovation

CEOs are the front runners of the company’s success, meaning you should always have what it takes to push the envelope and be open to trying new things. Hence, creativity and innovation. CEOs with these skills have higher chances of beating other competitors in the market as they continuously seek novel solutions and stay ahead of industry trends. Creativity and innovation are the driving forces propelling a company toward new heights of success.

Tech Savvy

Successful 21st-century CEOs must possess technological knowledge and skills. Nowadays, business innovation is a crucial concept that every company must understand, from product development to marketing experience management. CEOs must stay up to date with new technological advancements and promptly adjust to the changing needs of their clients and employees.

Consider the case of Yahoo, once a dominant force in the online advertising sector in 2005. Its downfall resulted from underestimating the importance of search and opting to pursue traditional media channels. Furthermore, its inability to devise a revenue-generating strategy for content views similar to Google’s led to its downfall.


Transparency in leadership builds credibility and trust. CEOs who are not transparent about company operations and budgets are bound to fail. Employees start to doubt choices when they feel their CEO withholds information or acts opaquely. Successful CEOs know that openness and transparency are essential to letting staff members see the work behind the scenes and comprehend the reasons behind choices.


Strong communication skills means being able to communicate clearly and succinctly. A company can easily fail if the CEO cannot communicate well with clients and staff.

Continuous Learning

Landing the CEO job is not the end of the line. CEOs must have a growth mindset and the willingness to put in a lifetime of work, learning, and perseverance. Moreover, you must also be able to approach challenges with an open mind.

CEOs will be faced with a lot of misfortunes. Capable CEOs, however, will take these challenges by the horns and reframe adversity as an opportunity to learn or grow. Among the best ways to foster a growth mindset is by joining professional groups directly related to the business world.


CEOs are the problem solvers of a company, which means that they must be approachable at all times. This skill is the cornerstone of establishing long-lasting partnerships.

Humble and approachable CEOs recognize the importance of making people feel more at ease and comfortable. This skill will help you build and maintain relationships with stakeholders, peers, coworkers, and even customers.

Bottom Line: The qualities that an individual needs to become an effective CEO include both hard skills (like financial management and technological knowledge) and soft skills (like approachability and transparency). The right college degree can provide some of the training needed to be successful in this role.

ceo sitting in an office with his team

Student Submitted Questions About the Best Degree for Becoming a CEO

Naomi asks,“What career paths lead to becoming a CEO?”

Dr. James Barham’s answer: The most effective career path to increase your chances of becoming a CEO is pursuing operational roles and maintaining a strong track record of achievements. Depending on the industry, this could involve production, supply chain, quality control, or project management positions. Operational roles can help you become an executive vice president of a company, a potential crucial step on your journey towards becoming a CEO.

Jane asks,“Can I become a CEO without a college degree?”

Dr. Jed Macosko’s answer:If you’re considering applying to a well-established company without a college degree, your chance of becoming a CEO is virtually zero. However, if you’re like Bill Gates, you can become a CEO by building your own company from the ground up and turning it into a major corporation.

Jessie asks,“Which is higher: CEO, president, or owner?”

Dr. James Barham’s answer: The answer depends on the company’s organizational structure. But in most cases, CEOs are the highest-ranking individuals in a company. They typically have more responsibilities than the president and owner.

Do you have a question about this topic? Ask it here