Who Gets Promoted to the C-Suite—and How That Has Changed Over the Decades
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Who Gets Promoted to the C-Suite—and How That Has Changed Over the Decades

Among our findings: The average age of top executives started falling after 1980. But now it’s higher than it was 40 years ago.

Wed, Jan 17, 2024 9:13amGrey Clock 5 min

Here’s the face of the new C-suite: older, with broader industry experience and increasingly female.

These are some of the most surprising findings my colleagues and I have uncovered about how C-suite leaders have changed over time. My co-researchers—Rocio Bonet and Monika Hamori—and I have been tracking the attributes of the leaders of the world’s biggest corporations, the Fortune 100, since 1980, when many of the key forces shaping business today began.

The findings, in some cases, seem to be at odds with each other. That is because many factors are pulling the business world in different directions. For instance, executives change jobs a lot more than in the past and don’t stick with one employer or industry for their entire careers. On the other hand, C-suite executives do less job hopping later in their careers after moving around a lot early on. In many ways, there is more stability in the corporate world now than we would ever imagine from the tales of intrigue within individual executive suites.

Here is a closer look at our key findings

  • The youth movement is over. Our study—which will appear in the California Management Review—found that C-suite executives are getting older. It’s a reversal of a long trend: Executives were getting younger after 1980—with the average age falling six years to 51 in 2001—but now the top leaders are back to where they were in 1980: 57 years old on average.
  • Executives are doing more job hopping. The number of different companies where executives worked, including their current job, rose each decade—to 3.3 in 2021 from 2.2 in 1980, a 50% rise. Likewise, the number of years the executives worked elsewhere before joining their current company jumped by a third, to 15 years, over that same period. As a result, more outsiders are being hired directly into executive roles. In 1980, 9% of C-suite executives fit that bill. In 2021, 26% did.
  • Executives are less likely to be lifers. The percentage of executives who spent their whole careers at one company dropped in every period in our data, especially between 2011 and 2021. Now just under 20% of executives are lifers, less than half the level in 1980 and about the same as in 1900. There is a big exception to that finding, though: legacy companies. These 17 companies—which have been in the Fortune 100 since 1980—have more than twice the percentage of lifers as the others.
  • Eventually, executives do settle down. While executives may move around more early in their careers, when they do settle on a job, they stay there longer. Average tenure in executive roles is now back up to where it was in 1980, close to four years, after falling to two years in 2001. This may have to do with tech companies: As the industry has matured, it has become more stable. (At legacy companies, though, average tenure has dipped to three years from four.)
  • They have broader experience. Executives used to get training in-house in various aspects of the business: operations, finance, logistics and so forth. It was a way for companies to train potential leaders from within, especially important since there weren’t a lot of outside hires for executive roles. Now companies are seeking people from outside who have experience in different niches, and putting them in roles that fill those niches. In 1980, the average top executive had worked in 1.4 different industries. Now that figure is 2.3.
  • Legacy companies aren’t exempt from big changes. The C-suite at legacy companies looks more traditional—that is, more like 1980—than it does at other companies. Even so, these older corporations have seen some big changes.
    First off, let’s look at the traditional side. Not only do legacy C-suites have a higher percentage of lifers, these executives get more training in-house and have less experience in other industries. At the same time, though, legacy executives have been affected by some trends that make them look different than in 1980. The executives have less tenure, as we have seen, and outsiders hired directly into executive roles went to 18% in 2021 from 1% in 1980.
  • More executives come from finance. Financial markets and investor interests took on a greater role after the 1980s, and that change is reflected in the proportion of executives with a finance background: The figure has been above 30% since 2001, up from 19% in 1980.
  • More executives have law degrees. The proportion of executives with a law degree has risen, going to 17% in 2001 from 11% in 1980, and staying near that higher level in 2021. This may be a response to increased corporate regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank that drive the need for more legal expertise in the C-suite.
  • Business degrees aren’t as prevalent as you would think. For years, there was huge growth in M.B.A. graduates in the overall population—63% from 2001 to 2011. But the growth rate of M.B.A.s in Fortune 100 C-suites was considerably lower: just 6%. The period from 2011 to 2021 had even less upward movement. The number of M.B.A.s in the C-suite rose by just 4% over those years, as M.B.A. graduates in general rose by 8% during that time.
  • Ivies are still influential. Even as the growth rate of M.B.A.s goes down overall in the C-suite, the dominance of graduates from Ivy League business schools in the executive ranks remains strong. Ivy League M.B.A. programs represent less than 1% of all such programs in the U.S. Meanwhile, as of 2021, 35% of C-suite executives had M.B.A.s, and 23% of those got the degree in the Ivy League. That’s in the same ballpark as 2001, when 30% of C-Suite executives had M.B.A.s, and 20% of those were from Ivies.
    A couple of factors may be at play: These top jobs have become more attractive for elite graduates as executive pay has soared—and more outside hiring by companies has made it possible for M.B.A.s to make lateral moves that offer a chance at the C-suite. Previously, graduates of those elite programs disproportionately moved into higher-paying investment careers.
  • Women are landing more executive jobs. The proportion of women in Fortune 100 top executive ranks rose from roughly zero in 1980 to 12% in 2001 and 18% in 2011, by about the same percentage as the proportion of women in all management jobs. After that, the proportion of women in these top executive ranks rose to 28% of jobs in 2021—while women executives in the overall ranks of management rose to just 18% of jobs from 17%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This indicates that it did not take an increase in the pipeline of women managers to add more to the executive suite.
  • Women are also advancing quicker than men. Women executives got to executive jobs faster than their male counterparts—four years faster into their careers in 2001, slowing to 1.5 years faster in 2021.
  • Foreign-born executives have also made gains. Something similar happened with executives from outside the U.S. Until this past decade, the percentage of foreign-born people in top executive ranks—2% in 1980, for instance—had lagged behind the proportion of foreign-born people in the U.S. as a whole. Now, foreign-born people make up 15% of top executive ranks—larger than their proportion in the overall population. This increase, though, doesn’t seem to be associated with any greater globalization of top corporations: Instead, it may reflect an increase in foreign-born students in elite U.S. postgraduate programs.

Peter Cappelli is a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Our Least Important Asset: Why the Relentless Focus on Finance and Accounting is Bad for Business and Employees.”


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Companies Say Push to Decarbonise Comes From Their Own Boards

Call to cut corporate carbon footprints is loudest from inside organizations, outweighing demand from customers and regulators, survey finds

Sun, Mar 3, 2024 2 min

The pressure on companies to cut their carbon footprint is coming more from within the organisations themselves than from customers and regulators, according to a new report.

Three-quarters of business leaders from across the Group of 20 nations said the push to invest in renewable energy is being driven mainly by their own corporate boards, with 77% of U.S. business leaders saying the pressure was extreme or significant, according to a new survey conducted by law firm Ashurst.

The corporate call to decarbonise is intensifying, Ashurst said, with 30% of business leaders saying the pressure from their own boards was extreme, up from 25% in 2022.

“We’re seeing that the energy transition is an area that is firmly embedded in the thinking of investors, corporates, governments and others, so there is a real emphasis on setting and acting on these plans now,” said Michael Burns, global co-head of energy at Ashurst. “That said, the pace of transition and the stage of the journey very much depends from business to business.”

The shift in sentiment comes as companies ramp up investment in renewable spending to meet their net-zero goals. Ashurst found that 71% of the more than 2,000 respondents to its survey had committed to a net-zero target, while 26% of respondents said their targets were under development.

Ashurst also found that solar was the most popular method to decarbonise, with 72% of respondents currently investing in or committed to investing in the clean energy technology. The law firm also found that companies tended to be the most active when it comes to renewable investments, with 52% of the respondents falling into this category. The average turnover of those companies was $15.1 billion.

Meanwhile, 81% of energy-sector respondents to the survey said they see investment in renewables as essential to the organisation’s strategic growth.

Burns said the 2030 timeline to reach net zero was very important to the companies it surveyed. “We are increasingly seeing corporate and other stakeholders actively setting and embracing trajectories to achieve net zero. However, greater clarity and transparency on the standards for measuring and managing these net-zero commitments is needed to ensure consistency in approach and, importantly, outcome,” he said.

Legal battles over climate change and renewable investing are also likely to rise, with 68% of respondents saying they expect to see an increase in legal disputes over the next five years, while only 16% anticipate a decrease, the report said.


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