It’s been years since you went to college. Your team’s sweatshirt is long faded and frayed. Yet your degree continues to speak volumes about whether or not you have the skills to be a top executive.
The truth is that potential employers and hiring managers will make assumptions about your leadership capabilities and compensation levels based on your degree for more than a decade.
So, whether you are marketing yourself to move up the ladder or looking for a new job, you need to understand how to put that degree to work for you.
I caught up with Evan Sinar, Ph.D., chief scientist at Development Dimensions International (DDI) and lead author of a new report, High-Resolution Leadership. Through his analysis of 15,000 leaders across 300 companies, he researched the ways degrees impact leadership success and offers some advice on what you can do to improve your skills — and your chances — to land your next big role.
Challenge The Stereotypes
Your degree can both inform potential employers about your leadership skills and mislead them at the same time, according to Sinar.
Business degrees are the most common among all senior leaders and, when tested against eight key leadership competencies, outperformed other degrees on five of eight key leadership skill areas. Humanities graduates also outperformed other degrees through strengths not only in interpersonal competencies, but also in results orientation and entrepreneurship.
Engineering graduates face a heavy disadvantage — they were near the bottom in leadership proficiency in six of the eight assessed competencies. Natural science, social science, and IT were near average. If you hold one of these degrees, you’ll need to work harder to demonstrate your leadership skills and capabilities to overcome biases.
Sinar recommends that you acknowledge and challenge long-held assumptions based on education. Though some bear true, many other stereotypes are wholly unfounded when compared to reality.
Balance Technical Expertise and Interpersonal Skills
As an aspiring leader, it’s important for you to strike a balance between the critical technical expertise you bring to the job and an awareness of common skill gaps that, if left unchecked, will limit your overall effectiveness once you move into a leadership role.
Many degree programs put a heavier focus on developing graduates’ technical abilities and much less emphasis on interpersonal and leadership skills. Though some degree programs fill this gap with group projects and informal leadership opportunities, it’s often up to the student to plan for and seek out these opportunities.
Engineering, law, IT, and natural sciences graduates are particularly likely to fall behind their peers from other degree backgrounds in leadership skills. This isn’t always a problem when you’re starting out a new job as an individual contributor, but can hold you back when you’re looking to move into a management position. It’s also a way to set yourself apart from the pack of other graduates in your field, if you’ve put the time and effort into gaining the skills others with your degree lack.
Get as much information as you can — using your career planning office if you’re still in school or working with your HR department once you’re in a job — to know your leadership-related strengths and weaknesses and invest in development opportunities to give you the skills you’ll need and plenty of time to practice them before you need them.
Is an MBA Worth the Investment?
When it comes to the full range of skills required for today’s leaders, an MBA may not always be the best choice.
When Sinar’s research compared undergraduate and MBA business degree holders, these groups diverged on several key leader skills. Specifically, though MBA graduates consistently outperformed business degree undergraduates in financial acumen, business savvy, and strategic decision making, they fell short comparatively in their coaching, results orientation, and visionary leadership skills.
If you’re pursuing an MBA, make sure that you get a well-rounded background in not just the management parts of a leader’s job, but also the interaction and inspirational skills you’ll need to truly excel as a leader.