Liberal Arts Degree Isn’t a Roadblock to Becoming CEO

Posted By Terri Williams on March 22, 2017 at 4:31 pm
Liberal Arts Degree Isn’t a Roadblock to Becoming CEO

Chief executive officers typically come from business backgrounds, since employers assume these graduates have organizational leadership skills and business acumen. But typically doesn’t mean always; many successful CEOs have a liberal arts background. Some famous examples:

  • Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks: bachelor’s degree in communications.
  • Steve Ells, Co-CEO of Chipotle: bachelor’s degree in art history.
  • Les Moonves, CEO of CBS: bachelor’s degree in Spanish.
  • Richard Plepler, Chairman and CEO of HBO: bachelor’s degree in government.
  • Patrick Byrne, CEO and Director of Overstock.Com: bachelor’s degree in Chinese studies, Ph.D. in philosophy.
  • Michael Eisner, former CEO of Walt Disney Company: double major in English and theater.

Some liberal arts degree students dropped out of college and came back years later to complete their degree requirements:

  • John Mackey, Co-CEO of Whole Foods: bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religion.
  • Steven Spielberg, Co-founder of DreamWorks Studios: bachelor’s degree in film and electronic arts.
  • Oprah Winfrey, CEO and Chairwoman of Harpo Productions and the Oprah Winfrey Networks: bachelor’s degree in communications.

Success isn’t by accident

The success of liberal arts degree majors isn’t an accident, according to James J. Winebrake, PhD, dean of the college of liberal arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Winebrake believes that liberal arts students are well prepared to take on leadership roles in business and industry. “I have always believed that a liberal arts education provides students with a skillset that allows them to succeed in leadership positions, especially in this new economy – and that belief has been validated through surveys that show employers value the types of skills that are hallmarks of a liberal arts education.”

Winebrake lists some of those attributes as the ability to think creatively and critically, communicate effectively, apply ethical reasoning, and also to collaborate and solve problems in various settings. “In our own assessment of Fortune 200 companies, we found that more than a quarter of the CEOs hold liberal arts undergraduate degrees, second only to business degrees.”

And he notes, “In addition, almost two-thirds of U.S. representatives and 80% of U.S. senators hold liberal arts undergraduate degrees.” While Winebrake’s team hasn’t delved into the data for nonprofits, he believes the overwhelming majority of leaders in this sector will also have liberal arts degrees.

“Clearly, leadership skills are honed through a liberal arts education.”

And he challenges the notion it only provides a theoretical education and is therefore inadequate. “Liberal arts students are taught to connect seemingly disparate subject matter in novel ways, leading to innovative and creative solutions to some of our most pressing real-world problems,” Winebrake says.

In fact, liberal arts students may have an edge over those with more technical schooling. According to Doug Cremer, Ph.D., dean of the college of liberal arts at Woodbury University, “Liberal arts students in the humanities and social sciences develop the ability to see things others with more professional or technical degrees often miss.”

Cremer names three key advantages:

  • They are particularly skilled at change and innovation as their fields of study confront them with ideas and situations they have never experienced before.
  • They are trained to question biases and judgments, observe others and information closely, and imagine new possibilities from old trajectories.
  • And they are often better writers, better analysts, and better communicators.

He believes that these traits are critical to leadership success, “especially in a dynamic business environment where one is called to guide large firms filled with diverse employees serving even more diverse customer and client bases.”

The liberal arts springboard

Several CEOs received a liberal arts undergraduate degree, and then went on to earn an MBA or a law degree, such as Barack Obama, 44th U.S. President; Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube; Lloyd Blankfein, chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs; and Kenneth Chenault, chairman and CEO of American Express.

When liberal arts grads continue to grad school, David W. Odell-Scott, PhD, associate dean, college of arts & sciences, Center for Comparative and Integrative Programs, and professor of philosophy at Kent State, believes the undergrad degree might be insignificant, since many CEOs often attend a prestigious grad school.

He also notes that the choice of undergraduate degree is not a factor in admission to grad school. “In fact, access to good graduate professional schools is determined by performance on the entrance exams, not by one’s undergraduate major – no graduate professional school requires a specific undergraduate major for admission.” However, Odell-Scott says liberal arts majors tend to do well on these standardized tests. “In almost every instance, whether it is the LSAT, GMAT, or GRE, majors in philosophy who take the exams consistently score in the top ranks, along with majors in economics, mathematics, and physics, to name a few.”

However, there is room for improvement. “I believe most liberal arts programs need to do a better job of incorporating technical and computational literacy into their curricula,” Winebrake said. “The 21st century economy demands that students have a wide range of integrated skills, and for the liberal arts student, that includes not only traditional liberal arts coursework, but also courses in engineering, information technology, and computing.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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