THE Alma Mater Index 2017: who educates the global business elite?

Our global survey gives a picture of which institutions are best at producing senior business leaders worldwide. John Elmes reports

January 19, 2017
Harvard University with graph and figures
Source: Getty/iStock montage

If large companies were required to donate even a small proportion of their revenue to the alma mater of their chief executive, a handful of already elite universities around the world would find themselves a great deal richer.

This is one of the conclusions that can be drawn from the Times Higher Education Alma Mater Index (Global Executives) 2017, which ranks universities according to how many qualifications they have awarded to chief executives of members of Fortune magazine’s Fortune Global 500. This is a ranking of the world’s 500 largest companies by revenue, whose total earnings in 2015 were $27.6 trillion (£22.3 trillion). This is well in excess of the entire gross domestic product of the US, which was $18 trillion in 2015, according to the World Bank.

Indeed, that some chief executives have qualifications from more than one institution means that if the companies’ revenues are attributed to each university that has awarded their chief executives a degree, the combined total approaches $40 trillion. While the index uses a simple methodology and is limited by the public availability of information, it nevertheless provides an interesting snapshot of top chief executives’ academic background.

The university that had educated the greatest number of chief executives is Harvard University, which has conferred 29 qualifications (including undergraduate and master’s degrees, as well as doctorates and other postgraduate qualifications) on 26 chief executives of companies with a combined 2015 revenue of more than $1.4 trillion.

In second place in the index is Stanford University, with 14 degrees conferred on 12 chief executives of companies worth a combined $729 billion. Two French grandes écoles come next in the ranking: HEC Paris, a business school, and École Polytechnique, a technically focused institution. The latter institution educated 11 chief executives, but, together, their companies generated more than $840 billion in 2015: $100 billion more than those run by Stanford graduates.

The UK’s highest-represented institution is the University of Oxford. Its seven degrees conferred on six alumni overseeing companies generating some $280 billion place it 14th in the index.

Overall, US institutions have educated 231 Fortune Global 500 chief executives: by far the highest number. The US is followed by China, whose universities have educated 116 chief executives; France, with 68; Germany, 46; the UK, 40; and Japan, 35.

Top 10 institutions in THE's Alma Mater Index 2017

But the extent to which those figures reflect the relative strength of those countries’ higher education systems, as opposed to their large populations and the number of large companies headquartered there, is very much open to debate. Those six countries also have the most companies in the Fortune Global 500, in almost the same order. In fact, examining the top 15 nations in the Alma Mater Index, the statistical correlation between the number of Fortune Global 500 chief executives their institutions have educated and number of Fortune Global 500 companies based there is 0.95, where 1 is a perfect correlation.

About two-thirds of Fortune Global 500 companies are run by chief executives who have a degree from the country where the company is based. When the analysis is confined to the top 100 companies, the correlation gets even stronger, with about three-quarters of chief executives holding domestic degrees. Of the 35 US companies in the top 100, 34 have chief executives with  qualifications from US institutions. Only Dion Weisler, chief executive of the information technology company Hewlett-Packard, and Steven H. Collis, head of the drugs company AmerisourceBergen, have undergraduate degrees from universities overseas: Australia’s Monash University and the University of the Witwatersrand, respectively.

Andrea Masini, the associate dean in charge of the MBA programme at HEC Paris, believes that companies’ apparent preference for domestically educated chief executives is understandable because candidates for the top job “certainly have to understand the culture of the company”.

“It’s clear that a multinational organisation that has strong links to the country where [it] is established will tend to say: ‘Somebody from this country will understand the intricacies and nuances of the culture of this place and this country,’” he says.

HEC Paris educated the joint second highest number of chief executives in the index: 12, seven of whom run French firms. But does the high proportion of companies hiring from within their national talent pools mean that the much-touted international market for corporate leaders – often cited by apologists for those leaders’ multimillion-pound pay levels – is actually something of a myth?

Masini does not draw that conclusion. “I presume that every school has a particular level of visibility in the country where [it] is established, but I don’t think [French companies in the Fortune Global 500, such as] Total, Orange or AXA would take a French leader simply because that person is French [or has a French university degree],” he says.

Andrew Owens, co-founder and chief executive of Greenergy, a UK road fuel supply company that is 477th in the Fortune Global 500, agrees that companies do not deliberately favour candidates educated in their home countries. However, he believes that the alleged “huge internationalism” of corporate appointments is indeed “overstated”.

Performance of top 15 nations in Alma Mater Index 2017 compared

“If I am a multinational company operating in 100 countries, with a market capitalisation of £100 billion, I’m going to do a global search for a CEO. But if I’m a private company that has a value under £1 billion, I’m more likely to get a headhunter and find someone from down the road,” he says. “If you take a multinational that’s headquartered in the US… the most significant and financially oriented jobs are likely to be in the US. They’re likely to be applied for by US people, and therefore they’re likely to end up with a US [appointment]. It’s just maths. They might have an operation in South Africa or Singapore, but it’s not head office.”

Moreover, he notes, many companies appoint from within, and internal candidates, who began their careers at more junior levels, are particularly likely to have been educated in the company’s home country.

Owens, who is a chemical engineering graduate of Imperial College London, also notes that while having a degree from a world-leading university is no guarantee of stepping into a chief executive’s role, those with such qualifications are likely to be looked upon favourably given that one must be “very determined” to get into somewhere like Imperial or Harvard.

“You’ve got to want it; you’ve got to be talented,” he says. “But determination and talent are in your nature if you’ve got in. So you’re not going to suddenly leave there when you complete your course and wait for it all to come to you; you’re going to compete. Business is all about driven people…and it just so happens that clever, ambitious people are going to get into the top institutions. Why would you think that those same clever people won’t then be the more successful people in their next job?”

Jean-Michel Blanquer, former deputy director of the Cabinet for the French Ministry of National Education, Higher Education and Research, and dean of Essec Business School (88th in the Alma Mater Index, having educated two Fortune Global 500 chief executives), thinks that the prospect of generating future chief executives for their country’s largest firms is “very often a motivation” for governments when they consider how much to spend on higher education.

But he also believes in the international talent pool for corporate leaders. A good example, he says, is Carlos Ghosn (pictured inset), the chief executive of French car firm Renault, who is now running its Japanese rival Nissan. “Renault is now a global company, and Carlos Ghosn is, at the same time, from Lebanon, France and Brazil: he has different roots,” Blanquer says. “All the previous leaders [of Renault] were very French: it’s a good example of the willingness [of today’s multinationals] to have internationalised people.”

George Kohlrieser, professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at IMD Business School in Lausanne, Switzerland, and associate clinical professor of psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, has been a high-level consultant to numerous Fortune Global 500 stalwarts, such as Accenture, Coca-Cola, Morgan Stanley and Nestlé. He believes that becoming top dog is “more performance-driven than it is education-driven”. But he does think it “very significant” that some global universities stand head and shoulders above the rest in the Alma Mater Index: of the nearly 400 higher education institutions that have awarded a degree to a Fortune Global 500 chief executive, only 63 have awarded more than two degrees. Stanford and Harvard, for instance, have educated 38 chief executives between them, and Kohlrieser thinks that this is partly connected to their academic standing: they are ranked third and sixth in the THE World University Rankings 2016-17, for instance. This “brand image” gives their graduates a certain aura, he says: “There’s something special about them if they made it into Harvard in the first place and were able to graduate…I think what you’ll find [within these people] is that drive to really learn, learn, learn, and be willing to do hard work to get where they’re at.”

He adds that the environment at top universities “does affect the mindset” of their students, who find that being surrounded by other “high performers really can be stimulating”. The mindset created by the necessity to “up their game” and to “be in there, trying to win” stimulates the “extra ambition that’s needed” to run top companies, Kohlrieser believes.

For Blanquer, the huge revenues associated with the world’s leading companies also underline a more general point about the central place that higher education plays in a country’s economic prosperity, given the ever-increasing need of such companies for highly educated talent, and their ability to relocate to the countries where that talent can best be sourced.

“Twenty years ago, you could say that the university was very important in society and you needed good universities to be a good country,” he says. “Today, [higher education] is much more than that: it’s the heart of the society and the economy. You are in or out in the globalisation [game] because of the quality of your HE sector. Research and higher education are as strategic as military and defence investment for a nation [if it wants to have] sovereignty in the world.”

Research by Tommaso Grant

 Hothouse powers: The Times Higher Education Alma Mater Index 2017

in Alma
in the THE
World University
Rankings 2016-17
Institution Country Number of qualifications
awarded to CEOs
of CEOs educated
Revenue ($bn)
1 6 Harvard University United States 29 26 1,429.62
2 3 Stanford University United States 14 12 728.84
3 NR HEC Paris France 12 12 516.71
4 116 École Polytechnique France 11 11 841.33
5 19 Cornell University United States 10 7 547.56
6 13 University of Pennsylvania United States 9 8 348.98
7 401-500 Wuhan University China 9 5 439.78
8 10 University of Chicago United States 8 7 444.13
9 5 Massachusetts Institute of Technology United States 8 6 340.23
10 251-300 Mines ParisTech France 7 7 554.04
11 NR ENA, École Nationale d’Administration France 7 7 334.83
12 91 Kyoto University Japan 7 7 231.89
13 NR Insead France 7 7 187.02
14 1 University of Oxford United Kingdom 7 6 282.48
15 170 University of Cologne Germany 6 6 336.76
16 39 University of Tokyo Japan 6 6 275.33
17 201-250 University of Stuttgart Germany 6 3 157.32
18 32 New York University United States 5 5 415.64
19 20 Northwestern University United States 5 5 208.24
20 4 University of Cambridge United Kingdom 5 5 184.41
21 72 Seoul National University South Korea 5 4 145.54
22 112 University of Göttingen Germany 5 3 176.8
23 =36* University of Illinois United States 4 4 359.83
24 16 Columbia University United States 4 4 310.78
25 201-250 Polytechnic University of Milan Italy 4 4 248.04
26 NR China Europe International Business School China 4 4 180.18
27 NR Shandong University China 4 4 161.76
28 601-800 Tokyo University of Science Japan 4 4 141.89
29 8 Imperial College London United Kingdom 4 4 135.78
30 35 Tsinghua University China 4 4 129.02
31 NR Nankai University China 4 3 156.92
32 45* University of Wisconsin United States 4 3 151.65
33 195 National Taiwan University Taiwan 4 3 90.88
34 18 Duke University United States 3 3 391.63
35 601-800 China University of Petroleum (Beijing) China 3 3 367.07
36 =80* University of Pittsburgh United States 3 3 265.7
37 601-800 Auburn University United States 3 3 256.39
38 60 University of Southern California United States 3 3 246.6
39 NR Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications China 3 3 212.64
40 56* University of North Carolina United States 3 3 187.39
41 30 LMU Munich Germany 3 3 186.77
42 169* Texas A&M University United States 3 3 179.33
43 33 University of Melbourne Australia 3 3 173.01
44 351-400 Hanyang University South Korea 3 3 169.72
45 14 University of California, Los Angeles United States 3 3 168.53
46 7 Princeton University United States 3 3 159.13
47 21* University of Michigan United States 3 3 135.92
48 601-800 Waseda University Japan 3 3 130.5
49 12 Yale University United States 3 3 100.72
50 NR Sciences Po France 3 3 97.81
51 113 University of Bonn Germany 3 3 78.15
52 78 RWTH Aachen University Germany 3 3 75.35
53 601-800 Keio University Japan 3 3 61.92
54 182 University of the Witwatersrand South Africa 3 2 306.46
55 301-350 University of Kent United Kingdom 3 2 135.48
56 251-300 University of São Paulo Brazil 3 2 98.82
57 801+ Southwest Jiaotong University China 3 2 95.65
58 501-600 Harbin Institute of Technology China 3 2 94.68
59 NR Harbin Engineering University China 3 2 90.44
60 9 ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich Switzerland 3 2 89.72
61 29 Peking University China 3 2 70.74
61 NR Dongbei University of Finance and Economics China 3 2 70.74
63 82 Technical University of Berlin Germany 3 2 58.07
64 NR Babson College United States 2 2 304.35
65 59 Delft University of Technology Netherlands 2 2 296.18
66 51 Brown University United States 2 2 195.59
67 401-500 San Diego State University United States 2 2 179.31
68 141* Rutgers University United States 2 2 172.81
69 501-600 Xi’an Jiaotong University China 2 2 171.26
70 143 University of Notre Dame United States 2 2 141.74
71 NR Hefei University of Technology China 2 2 137.55
72 351-400 Iowa State University United States 2 2 130.64
73 10 University of California, Berkeley United States 2 2 127.5
74 68 Pennsylvania State University United States 2 2 117.65
75 351-400 University of Houston United States 2 2 113.49
76 121 University of Virginia United States 2 2 103.01
77 251-300 Sapienza University of Rome Italy 2 2 102.81
78 601-800 University of Science and Technology Beijing China 2 2 99.85
79 251-300 Osaka University Japan 2 2 96.33
80 201-250 CentraleSupélec France 2 2 95.48
81 70* Purdue University United States 2 2 89.91
82 198 Tilburg University Netherlands 2 2 87.53
83 401-500 Huazhong University of Science and Technology China 2 2 86.64
84 501-600 Complutense University of Madrid Spain 2 2 83.97
85 NR Bowdoin College United States 2 2 83.93
86 201-250 University of Cincinnati United States 2 2 83.51
87 201-250 Shanghai Jiao Tong University China 2 2 82.52
88 NR Essec Business School France 2 2 79.08
89 165 University of Auckland New Zealand 2 2 71.86
90 201-250 Boston College United States 2 2 70.4
91 401-500 Lehigh University United States 2 2 70.05
92 42 McGill University Canada 2 2 68.71
93 173 University of Waterloo Canada 2 2 68.67
94 NR Pepperdine University United States 2 2 68.6
95 201-250 University of Iowa United States 2 2 63.1
96 69 Erasmus University Rotterdam Netherlands 2 2 55.76
97 NR Hitotsubashi University Japan 2 2 55.75
98 182 Northeastern University United States 2 2 53.4
99 601-800 Northwestern Polytechnical University China 2 2 52.07
100 201-250 Korea University South Korea 2 2 49.56

NR = not ranked

The index methodology

Each chief executive’s education has been researched using biographies from sources such as company websites, press releases, industry association websites, conference speaker biographies and news sources. For a small number of individuals, Times Higher Education was unable to find details of their educational history.

Institutions in the Alma Mater Index 2017 have been ranked according to the total number of degrees awarded to chief executives. Where this was equal, they have been ranked according to their total number of chief executive alumni. Where this was equal, they have been separated according to the total revenue of their alumni chief executives’ companies in 2015.

The ranking is based on the chief executives listed by Fortune in the Fortune Global 500 2016.

If a company lists joint chief executives, we have attempted to include both alma maters where the information can be found, but revenue for the company is counted only once if the chief executives share an alma mater.

Where one chief executive is listed for two companies, the institutions are counted only once, but the revenue for both companies is counted.

Where a chief executive has two degrees from the same institution, the revenue is counted only once.

Where the degree-awarding institution has been subsumed into another institution or has changed name, the current name has been used.

Management schools have been listed under the parent institution.

Some short-course executive education management programmes have also been included. Except for the University of California, US multi-campus university systems are treated as one university. The listed position in the THE World University Rankings is that of the system’s highest-ranked campus and is indicated by an asterisk.

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