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How Do You Rise to the C-Suite? LinkedIn Research Offers Some Clues

An ipad with the linkedin logo next to a cup of coffee.

​What does it take to get to the C-suite? An MBA from a top-ranked program, experience in different job functions within the same industry or related industries, and time spent working at company headquarters all are important factors.

However, a woman having all of the above will need to put in an average of 3.5 more years of work experience to reach the C-level than a man with a similar LinkedIn profile.

That's according to research by Guy Berger, Ph.D., an economist at LinkedIn, and his colleagues Link Gan, manager of economic research, and Alan Fritzler, researcher on the economic graph team. They analyzed the career paths of about 459,000 LinkedIn members globally who worked at top management consultancies between 1990 and 2010 as vice president, senior executive officer or partner at a company with at least 200 employees.

The researchers also examined other aspects of those LinkedIn member profiles, such as educational background, career transitions, work experience and gender.

"We get a lot of questions about career paths and how they develop," Berger told SHRM Online. "We can [answer those questions] with this data."

The researchers write in their report that, "at the end of the day, the probability of becoming an executive is merely 14 percent."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing Organizational Leaders]

Human resource professionals aspiring to move into the C-suite improve their chances if they stay within an industry (or move to a related industry) but broaden their work experience beyond the HR function, according to Berger.

"You would want to spend time being a generalist, doing some recruiting, maybe finance, some change management. Acquiring a broad portfolio of skills within that industry increases your chances of rising to the top," he told SHRM Online.

That broad portfolio will "push the career trajectory as far up the ladder as possible."

Be aware that switching between widely different industries can torpedo the chance to become a part of the leadership team. A lot of the knowledge and relationships developed over time in a particular industry become useless the further one strays from that industry, Berger noted.

Joe Roualdes, senior manager in corporate communications for LinkedIn, theorized that getting experience in functions outside HR gives a person a better understanding of how different teams work in a given industry, something that's important for an executive to know.

"An HR professional who works in HR job functions their entire career and gets experience in several unrelated industries has a lower likelihood of becoming an executive than an HR professional who works across several job functions in one industry, or a few closely related industries," Roualdes said.

MBA from the 'Right' School

Earning an MBA provides a boost to the C-suite. It is equivalent to 13 years of work experience or having experience in four different job functions, but only if the degree is from one of the five top programs as ranked by U.S. News & World Report, the study found.

By comparison, an MBA not affiliated with one of those top programs provides a net boost of only five years.

Other advanced degrees, such as master's degrees or doctorates, do not provide the career boost that an MBA from a top-five program does, the researchers found. One reason could be that a key benefit of MBA programs is developing a robust network of professional connections that can help with career advancement, Roulades suggested.

However, programs such as those at Harvard, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania are out of reach for many people. That's where cross-functional experience can make the difference, Berger said.

"Generalist knowledge is pretty powerful if you want to rise to a high level" because the knowledge and skills that are developed are easily transferrable, Berger said.

LinkedIn expects to release new research by early 2017 showing that the percentage of executives who have MBAs is becoming less prevalent among people at the vice president level and above.

"MBAs clearly help [a person] become an executive, but [the degree's] influence has declined steadily since 1990," Roulades said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

Where a person works also plays an important part in their advancement to the executive level. In the U.S., chances of rising to the C-suite increase for those working in New York City. That's likely because many industries are headquartered there, Berger said.

"Our belief is that networks matter a lot. And while technology has made it easier to work remotely than in the past, I suspect there is [value] to face time" with supervisors, Berger opined.

Women in the C-Suite

While all of the factors—location, an MBA from a top school, knowledge of different job functions—are important for the careers of men and women, a woman needs an average of 3.5 more years of work experience to have "the same probability of becoming an executive," Berger and his colleagues wrote.

"The truth is, we don't know" why that is, he said. Berger hypothesized that it may reflect that women, on average, are more likely to interrupt their careers to start a family or serve as caregivers.

A June 2016 study by Korn Ferry of the top 1,000 U.S. companies by revenue found that women make up the following percentages of each C-suite position:

  • CEO—5 percent.

  • Chief financial officer—12 percent.

  • Chief marketing officer—29 percent.

  • Chief human resources officer—55 percent.

"In every industry we analyzed, there's a tremendous need for improvement to bring more women to the C-suite," said Peggy Hazard, managing principal at Korn Ferry, in a news release. "There is a joint responsibility of the women to seek out experiences and development that can help them lead and succeed, and for organizations to create an environment where women feel empowered to progress in their careers at all levels."

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