Accidental Moguls: College Majors of Top CEOs

In this, the graduation season, the thoughts of college students naturally turn to the four years behind them, the lifetime ahead of them, and the connections between the two. For business students, especially those with the biggest of corporate ambitions, this is a particularly introspective time. Role models seem to be everywhere—whether it's the rags-to-riches story, the brilliant entrepreneur, or the middle manager turned MBA turned corporate leader.

It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that a lot of big-company chief executive officers studied business in college. After all, their numbers are legion, and include such household names as Cisco Systems' John Chambers (West Virginia University), Comcast's Brian Roberts (Wharton), and Office Depot's Steve Odland (Notre Dame). The list of CEOs who dropped out at some point during their academic careers likewise reads like a who's who of Corporate America: Microsoft's Bill Gates (Harvard), Oracle's Larry Ellison (University of Chicago), and, of course, Apple's Steve Jobs (Reed College).

But another slice of the big-company CEO demographic has gotten a lot less attention, and it's in many ways far more interesting: young men and women who started their academic lives studying something completely unrelated to business, only to find themselves years later running a corporate behemoth.

Some of the pathways to the corner office trod by these accidental moguls are, if not well-known, certainly recognizable. Engineers seem to do as well in business as business students do, once sprung from the stuffy confines of the ivory tower. (Biogen's James Mullen, Amgen's Kevin Sharer, and Newell Rubbermaid's Mark Ketchum all have undergraduate engineering degrees of one sort or another.) In Silicon Valley, there was a time when a degree in computer science amounted to a license to print money, and everybody had one. (Google's Eric Schmidt has two, including a PhD from UC-Berkeley.) And medical students sometimes find themselves running health-care or pharmaceutical companies.

Unconventional Paths

Other pathways are, well, unusual to say the least. Jeff Immelt, the CEO at General Electric (GE), studied applied mathematics at Dartmouth before getting his MBA at Harvard Business School (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile).Another Harvard MBA, James Dimon at JPMorgan Chase (JPM), studied psychology (plus economics) at Tufts.Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas at Austin before he dropped out, only to end up running the computer company that bears his name.And when the former chief executive officer at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Carly Fiorina, cracked the books as a Stanford undergrad, they were books about philosophy and medieval history.She later went on to get two different advanced management degrees from the University of Maryland Smith School of Business (Smith Full-Time MBA Profile) and MIT's Sloan School of Management (Sloan Full-Time MBA Profile), but in college the world of business just wasn't on her radar.

And those are hardly the only examples. Janet Robinson was an undergraduate English major at Salve Regina University, an academic calling befitting the chief executive officer of the New York Times Co. (NYT). Robert Iger majored in communications as an undergraduate at Ithaca College: He's now running Walt Disney (DIS). And Sam Palmisano, the chief executive officer at IBM (IBM), studied history at Johns Hopkins.

Most people would be hard-pressed to see the future CEO in a 20-year-old philosophy major. But there may be a reason why some of them end up running big companies.

Leadership Qualities

Headhunters will tell you that in one way, what an executive studied in college is almost meaningless. The HP board, when it was considering Fiorina for CEO, wasn't mulling over how her undergraduate degree in medieval history might help the company sell more printers—it was parsing her work at AT&T (T) and Lucent, and her strategic vision for HP.

But in another way, undergraduate degrees do matter. A lot. Peter Crist, of the Hinsdale (Ill.) executive search firm Crist Kolder Associates, notes that individuals with a liberal arts background have one big advantage over those with undergraduate degrees in business, engineering, or the sciences: an expansive and inquiring mind. Without it, he says, making the leap from middle management to C-suite is impossible. "I don't believe leaders are born," Crist says. "I believe over a long period of time, leadership traits are imbued in an individual." Studying literature, history, and big ideas is one way that happens.

Perhaps the best formula for creating a CEO, Crist says, is one part generalist, one part specialist—a dash of liberal arts with a soupçon of business or engineering, ideally as an advanced degree. In fact, this is the educational trajectory followed by a lot of top CEOs. Ken Chenault at American Express (AXP) studied history as an undergraduate at Bowdoin College, then a few years later got his JD from Harvard Law. Dan Hesse majored in government and international studies at Notre Dame in the '70s, earning an MBA from Cornell (Johnson Full-Time MBA Profile) before landing the first of several CEO jobs.He's now chief executive officer, and chief pitchman, for Sprint Nextel (S).James Rogers, the Eastman Chemical (EMN) chief, got his undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Virginia a decade before bagging an MBA from Wharton (Wharton Full-Time MBA Profile).

Passion Required

Todd Buchholz, the author of New Ideas from Dead CEOs, doesn't disagree with Crist's premise. In fact, he goes one step further. Business education, in the absence of passion for a specific business idea, he says, is at best a waste of time, and at worst a passion killer. "To me, studying business as an undergrad is like reading the car manual that came with your car before learning how to drive," says Buchholz. "It shouldn't be what comes first. If it's the first thing you learn, it's probably the route to misery."

Michael Useem, a management professor at Wharton who has studied the intersection of higher education and corporate management, says CEOs and other senior executives need "a general understanding of how everything works," perhaps more so than the kinds of business basics taught in college. "For larger companies and senior positions, an understanding of history, art, and how societies operate are assets," Useem says. "To be effective in the higher reaches of the private sector, some combination of liberal arts and a business degree is the sweet spot."