LinkedIn reveals a path to the corner office

Looking to break into the executive ranks of the company you work for? A new study by LinkedIn may help you find a way to the top. The study by the social network identified factors that made a difference in advancing careers to the top levels by looking at 64,000 LinkedIn members who became high-ranking executives at companies with 200 employees or more. LinkedIn sought to see which factors – education, gender, work experience and job transfers – made a different in advancing or stalling careers. The study provides significant insights for would-be executives. However LinkedIn revealed the bad side: LinkedIn found that on average there is only a 14 percent probability of an employee making it to the top level. But for those willing to give it a try, LinkedIn’s economist Guy Berger offered several insights about the path to success.

Cross-functional experience provides a boost

Learning and working across different functions of the company – for instance in marketing and then finance – seems to provide a boost that Berger said was the equivalent of three years of additional job experience. However, switching industries constitutes a slight negative, Berger said, adding that learning a new field might slow a career down. Top executives, Berger said, “need to understand how the different parts of a company work and how they interact with each other and understand how people do their job, even if it’s something you don’t know well enough to do yourself.”

MBA from top school recommended

He said it also is worth the investment to get a Master’s in Business Administration. On average it provided a net positive that was equivalent of up to 13 years of work experience. The caveat: that 13 percent reflected a degree from a top program. An MBA from a lower-ranked university only provided a five-year boost. Other advanced degrees such as a PhD or master’s did not provide the same career advantages. In the LinkedIn study, about 80 percent of the non-MBA degrees were master’s in topics including economics, accounting, computer science and information technology. According to Berger, location makes a significant difference. For example, those working in New York City were much more likely to advance to the executive level than those in Houston or Washington, DC. Internationally, Singapore and Mumbai caused a boost while Sao Paulo and Madrid had negative effects. Berger said this might reflect the dominant types of industries in different locations – certain types are more hierarchical than others – as well as locations where higher numbers of company headquarters are located.

Men still have an edge

Gender does make a difference. The study found that a woman needed 3.5 years more experience on average than a man with a similar profile before she could advance. Berger described three hypothetical profiles of employees to illustrate how the differences play out. Each worker had 15 years of work experience:

  •  A man with an undergraduate degree only who is based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who has worked a single job function for three companies in three different industries. His likelihood of becoming an executive is six percent.
  • A man who has an undergraduate degree from a top university and a master’s degree, but not an MBA. He is based in London, where he has worked two different job types for two companies in two industries. His probability: 15 percent.
  • A woman with an undergraduate degree and an MBA from two top American universities. Based in New York City, she has worked across four job functions for four companies in a single industry. Her odds of becoming an executive: 63 percent.

“Hypbrid jobs” more common

Gary Pinkus, managing partner for North America with McKinsey Company, agreed that knowledge of different functions of the company has become more critical to success. In a more traditional, hierarchical work environment of the past, specialization paid off, Pinkus told The New York Times. “But if you look at most companies now, work has become incredibly cross-functional.” Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job listing to identify trends in the labor market, discovered a recent jump in what it calls “hybrid jobs” that require more than one type of expertise. Other researchers found that MBA holders with a range of experience at investment banks get more offers and bonuses than those with single-function experience. Marc Andreessen, a leading venture capitalist, emphasizes the importance of being good in a lot of areas rather than necessarily being the best at one thing. The most successful executives are rarely the best at envisioning products, selling, marketing or finance. Instead, he said, “they are (in the) top 25 percent in some set of those skills.”


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