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.”


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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A Killer Golf Swing Is a Hot Job Skill Now

Companies are eager to hire strong players who use hybrid work schedules to schmooze clients on the course

Fri, Jun 14, 2024 5 min

Standout golfers who aren’t quite PGA Tour material now have somewhere else to play professionally: Corporate America.

People who can smash 300-yard drives and sink birdie putts are sought-after hires in finance, consulting, sales and other industries, recruiters say. In the hybrid work era, the business golf outing is back in a big way.

Executive recruiter Shawn Cole says he gets so many requests to find ace golfers that he records candidates’ handicaps, an index based on average number of strokes over par, in the information packets he submits to clients. Golf alone can’t get you a plum job, he says—but not playing could cost you one.

“I know a guy that literally flies around the world in a private jet loaded with French wine, and he golfs and lands hundred-million-dollar deals,” Cole says.

Tee times and networking sessions have long gone hand-in-golf-glove. Despite criticism that doing business on the course undermines diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—and the fact that golf clubs haven’t always been open to women and minorities —people who mix golf and work say the outings are one of the last reprieves from 30-minute calendar blocks

Stars like Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie West helped expand participation in the sport. Still, just 22% of golfers are nonwhite and 26% are women, according to the National Golf Foundation.

To lure more people, clubs have relaxed rules against mobile-phone use on the course, embracing white-collar professionals who want to entertain clients on the links without disconnecting from the office. It’s no longer taboo to check email from your cart or take a quick call at the halfway turn.

With so much other business conducted virtually, shaking hands on the green and schmoozing over clubhouse beers is now seen as making an extra effort, not slacking off.

Americans played a record 531 million rounds last year. Weekday play has nearly doubled since 2019, with much of the action during business hours , according to research by Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom .

“It would’ve been scandalous in 2019 to be having multiple meetings a week on the golf course,” Bloom says. “In 2024, if you’re producing results, no one’s going to see anything wrong with it.”

A financial adviser at a major Wall Street bank who competes on the amateur circuit told me he completes 90% of his tasks by 10 a.m. because he manages long-term investment plans that change infrequently. The rest of his workday often involves golfing with clients and prospects. He’s a member of a private club with a multiyear waiting list, and people jump at the chance to join him on a course they normally can’t access.

There is an art to bringing in business this way. He never initiates shoptalk, telling his playing partners the round is about having fun and getting to know each other. They can’t resist asking about investment strategies by the back nine, he says.

Work hard, play hard

Matt Parziale golfed professionally on minor-league tours for several years, but when his dream of making the big time ended, he had to get a regular job. He became a firefighter, like his dad.

A few years later he won one of the biggest amateur tournaments in the country, earning spots in the 2018 Masters and U.S. Open, where he tied for first among non-pros.

The brush with celebrity brought introductions to business types that Parziale, 35 years old, says he wouldn’t have met otherwise. One connection led to a job with a large insurance broker. In 2022 he jumped to Deland, Gibson Insurance Associates in Wellesley, Mass., which recognised his golf game as a tool to help win large accounts.

He rescheduled our interview because he was hosting clients at a private club on Cape Cod, and squeezed me in the next morning, before teeing off with a business group in Newport, R.I.

A short time ago, Parziale couldn’t imagine making a living this way. Now he’s the norm in elite amateur golf circles.

“I look around at the guys at the events I play, and they all have these jobs ,” he says.

His boss, Chief Executive Chip Gibson, says Parziale is good at bringing in business because he puts as much effort into building relationships as honing his game. A golf outing is merely an opportunity to build trust that can eventually lead to a deal, and it’s a misconception that people who golf during work hours don’t work hard, he says.

Barry Allison’s single-digit handicap is an asset in his role as a management consultant at Accenture , where he specialises in travel and hospitality. He splits time between Washington, D.C., and The Villages, Fla., a golf mecca that boasts more than 50 courses.

It can be hard to get to know people in distributed work environments, he says. Go golfing and you’ll learn a lot about someone’s temperament—especially after a bad shot.

“If you see a guy snap a club over his knee, you don’t know what he’s going to snap next,” Allison says.

Special access

On a recent afternoon I was a lunch guest at Brae Burn Country Club, a private enclave outside Boston that was the site of U.S. Golf Association championships won by legends like Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. I parked in the second lot because the first one was full—on a Wednesday.

My host was Cullen Onstott, managing director of the Onstott Group executive search firm and a former collegiate golfer at Fairfield University. He explained one reason companies prize excellent golfers is they can put well-practiced swings on autopilot and devote most of their attention to chitchat.

It’s hard to talk with potential customers about their needs and interests when you’re hunting for errant shots in the woods. It’s also challenging if you show off.

The first hole at Brae Burn is a 318-yard par 4 that slopes down, enabling big hitters like Onstott to reach the putting green in a single stroke. But to stay close to his playing partners and keep the conversation flowing, he sometimes hits a shorter shot.

Having an “in” at an exclusive club can make you a catch. Bo Burch, an executive recruiter in North Carolina, says clubs in his region tend to attract members according to their business sectors. One might be chock-full of real-estate investors while another has potential buyers of industrial manufacturing equipment.

Burch looks for candidates who are members of clubs that align with his clients’ industries, though he stresses that business acumen comes first when filling positions.

Tami McQueen, a former Division I tennis player and current chief marketing officer at Atlanta investment firm BIP Capital, signed up for private golf lessons this year. She had noticed colleagues were wearing polos with course logos and bringing their clubs to work. She wanted in.

McQueen joined business associates on the golf course for the first time in March at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She has lowered her handicap to a respectable 26 and says her new skill lends a professional edge.

“To be able to say, ‘I can play with you and we can have those business meetings on the course’ definitely opens a lot more doors,” she says.


This stylish family home combines a classic palette and finishes with a flexible floorplan

35 North Street Windsor

Just 55 minutes from Sydney, make this your creative getaway located in the majestic Hawkesbury region.

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