Business hopefuls face a tough question at the start of their career: do they stop to complete school, work experience or a risky start-up on their path to the executive suite?
Established business leaders say communication, problem-solving and time management skills are the top three requirements for success. Boss-level attainment of these skills comes at a premium, whether it’s the fee you shell out for college, the time you put into on-the-job experience or the risk you endure starting a business from scratch.
But while 56% of independent business leaders don’t have a diploma, there’s no denying that college offers advantages that other routes don’t. These include:
- Thorough, structured learning with a human support network.
- Time for thought and low-risk experiments via study projects and incubator programs.
- Established connections with the wider world of business and politics.
- A huge personal network and, in the case of business school, an instant network of future leaders.
To put it another way, you might well become a successful business leader without going to university — but you could become a better one by going.
Of course, it depends on where you go. Some schools are better than others. Some promise a more formidable network. And some universities just seem to have the knack for producing successful business leaders.
Resume.io has done the research and can tell you which ones they are.
What We Did
Resume.io compiled lists of universities in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada and recorded the number of graduates listed on the pages of universities on LinkedIn. Then we searched for alums of each university with CEO or similar in their job titles and checked the number of alums for each category. Finally, we ranked universities by the number of business leaders per 1,000 alums. Only universities with more than 25k alums on LinkedIn were considered.
- Harvard University has the most business leaders on LinkedIn: 41,118.
- However, Babson College in Massachusetts produces more business leaders per 1,000 graduates: 160.5.
- Cambridge has produced the most business leaders in the UK (26,688), but Oxford produces the most per 1,000 (73.6).
- Bond University produces 60.6 business leaders per 1,000 grads, the best hit rate of any Australian university.
- Royal Roads University has the highest proportion of business leaders in Canada: 69.2/1,000.
U.S.: Military Schools Make Leaders
America’s Ivy League colleges are known all over the world, but they are far from the full story. In fact, only three of them are among the top ten producers of business leaders by number, and only one makes it to the table for producing the highest proportion of business leaders.
Harvard University produces the most business leaders in total, with 41,118 of its 488,238 alums on LinkedIn listed as CEO or similar. And not all business leaders are equal: a separate study found that 41 Harvard grads are among the leaders of Fortune 500 Companies, nearly twice the number of the University of Pennsylvania. These include the CEOs of Amazon, JPMorgan Chase, General Electric and McDonald’s. However, becoming a business leader out of Harvard is hardly the norm; only 84.2 out of 1,000 graduates do so. When measured by proportion of business leaders produced, Harvard doesn’t make the grade.
The ten colleges that are most effective at producing business leaders count only one Ivy League school (Stanford) among them, and you may be surprised to find that four of them are military schools. A military background “can develop leadership, project management and critical thinking skills that transform soldiers into logistical planners, great team members and agile thinkers,” according to FinDec CEO and former Battalion Executive Officer Michael Lee. “These are qualities and talents that add value to civilian jobs that can help organizations succeed.”
UK: Oxbridge Graduates Dominate Business Leadership
The UK’s universities include some of the oldest in the world — Oxford is approaching its 1,000-year anniversary. But centuries at the forefront of world affairs have required evolution, and you will also find the innovative Open University — chartered just 54 years ago as the first distance learning university of its kind — in both of our UK rankings below.
Oxbridge, Oxford and Cambridge are the UK's oldest universities and nurture an ancient rivalry, with the latter having splintered from the former over 800 years ago. They produce more business leaders than any other UK university, with Cambridge winning emphatically by sheer numbers (26,688 vs. 20,659).
However, since Cambridge has over 80,000 more graduates on LinkedIn, Oxford can claim the highest proportion of graduates (73.6 per 1,000) who are now business leaders — Last-minute founder Martha Lane Fox among them. Allowing for scale, Cranfield University and the University of Wales also enter the top ten. Cranfield’s alums include the founders of Cobra Beer, Moonpig Hotel Chocolat and the CEOs of Barclays Bank and Rolls Royce.
Australia: Bond University Offers Alternative Path to Leadership
Australia’s leading Group of Eight universities is known for their billion-dollar budgets and world-class research. But which of the country’s schools consistently turn out successful leaders? As it turns out, Go8 universities account for only half of the top ten when measured by total or by proportion.
The five Australian universities to have produced the most business leaders are the ones with the highest enrolment levels – although not in the same order. University of New South Wales (UNSW) jumps to the top, with 14,275 of its 251,960 LinkedIn grads listed as bosses. UNSW is home to a business school and, within that, the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM); the Financial Times ranks the school’s MBA among the top 100 worldwide. One of UNSW’s most notable graduates is Mike Cannon-Brookes. The billionaire founder and co-CEO of Atlassian now funds a substantial scholarship for the Computer Science BSc at his alma mater.
For the best shot at business success, however, two non-Go8 schools jump to the top. Proportionally, Bond University and the University of New England produce more business leaders than any other Australian college. Established on Queensland’s Gold Coast as late as 1989, Bond is consistently ranked as the country’s most student-friendly university. However, “to choose Bond takes bravery, and it takes focus,” says David Baxby, Bond graduate and former co-CEO of the Virgin Group. “To go mainstream with your peers, that is the easy route. “People who are willing to take a risk, make a conscious choice and not just go with the flow are the people who are really getting on in this world.”
Canada: McGill Second Place to Royal Roads University
Times Higher Education ranks three Canadian universities among the world’s top 50, and all three of them consistently turn out graduates who go on to become business leaders. But only one of those schools — McGill, in Montreal — is seriously vying for the number one spot for most effective producer of business leaders.
With 68% more full-time undergraduates than its nearest competitor, it’s no wonder the University of Toronto produces significantly more business leaders than any other Canadian university. However, the university is noted for innovation, and being at the heart of a major international business city also helps. There are five Canadian prime ministers among Toronto’s alums, and former Chief Economist, CEO and president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business Catherine Swift received her BA and MA in Economics here.
McGill is ranked number two for producing business leaders, both in absolute terms and proportionally. The school counts Les Vadasz, founding member and executive VP of Intel, among its alums. However, Royal Roads University has the best hit rate by a significant margin. Graduate Kellie Garrett, Senior Vice President of Farm Credit Canada and once ranked among the 100 Most Powerful Women, has this to say of leadership: “Persistence is important, for sure, but mental toughness includes self-awareness, self-compassion, grit, maintaining a positive mindset, confidence, resilience and an unwavering commitment to your goals.”
School of Hard Knocks
It’s an old cliché that there are as many routes to business leadership as there are business leaders. Certainly, choosing a university for its high hit rate is not the most sensitive of approaches. However, measuring up the big hitters and analyzing why it is that they produce so many CEOs can be a part of making an informed decision of where to study — or whether to study at all. You can compare our data in full in the interactive table below.
Methodology & Sources
To create these tables, we first compiled lists of universities in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, checking and recording the number of graduates listed on the pages of universities on LinkedIn. Then we searched for alums with CEO, CFO, COO, CTO, CIO and CSO on their job titles and checked the number of alums for each category.
To find the number of business leaders, we searched for alums that had any of the following terms as job titles: "CEO OR CFO OR COO OR CTO OR CIO OR CSO." Finally, we ranked universities by the number of business leaders and the number of leaders per 1,000 alums. Only universities with more than 25k alums on Linkedin were considered.
The data was collected in December 2022.