Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » Why the C-Suite needs PhDs

While droves of C-suite executives can boast MBAs, very few can celebrate a PhD. Too painful, complicated and time consuming, they say. Simply not a serious option in our hectic executive lives.

This is a mistake. In an increasingly knowledge driven economy, business leaders need to battle complexity and adversity not by simplifying their lives but by combining opposable realities. The primary role of the CEO or CFO, and wider C-suite is to solve intellectual challenges in an actionable way.

Internet entrepreneur and Linkedin Founder Reid Hoffman once mused that a business leader should behave like a co-founder, even if the enterprise was founded a hundred years ago. Not like a manager preoccupied with process, or an entrepreneur driven by profit. A founder is more of a visionary, excited at the prospect of solving complex equations. An artist, performing to new markets with unexpected innovations.

Why should the visionary leader consider undertaking a PhD? What role can a Doctorate play in a modern company?  There is no denying  that business leaders are not required to be professional researchers or writers. And a PhD is lucky to be peer reviewed by five other academics while a business leader can be far more influential posting an opinion on Linkedin, followed by thousands of readers. And why should the CEO or CFO have a PhD when the Board can appoint the most respected Doctorates to work on whatever challenges demand the highest level of expertise?

The reasons can be found in a society where highly skilled ‘amateurs’ often outperform insecure professionals and qualified ‘academics’ in their chosen professional fields, and where increasingly non hierarchical companies depend on the highest levels of education to elevate thinking. While tradition might suggest a PhD, (excluding medicine) is associated with academic progression alone, the mere discipline of studying for a PhD, using real life insights and actual data in a relevant management science rather than as theoretical hypothesis, can have far more powerful commercial consequences than was previously thought possible.

That’s where the business leader PhD differs from the academic. A PhD need not be a thesis, when it can be real time, actionable learning, rehoused from classroom to corporate at a time when leadership needs outside help to disrupt itself more than ever.

Towards a more Socratic CFO

The PhD business leader sets the expectation for the entire company, redefining the entrance criteria to the Board for aspiring managers, resetting new thresholds in attainment towards education and away from time duly served and modernising a corporate culture from business-as-usual to business school. This CEO or CFO can differentiate the brand as the place to learn, as the employer that wants to promote, that isn’t happy with its key players until they are as fulfilled as they can be.

The PhD business leader also chimes well with young people’s perceptions of a job as a place to learn, not just to work. Mazars research in 2018 showed how ‘Generation Z’ corporate recruits in all professions, with less educational opportunities than their millennial predecessors, ruthlessly regard a job as a place to learn. Modern leadership has to pivot from its traditional role in prescribing corporate culture, to fulfilling the expectations of these raw recruits. The Ph business leader can connect more easily with young workers who respect education over salary and perks expect to be promoted into client facing roles early on, not after time is duly served.

The business leader PhD also puts the outmoded MBA in its place. Of late, this overpriced anachronism has become too elitist, too removed from pressing corporate needs. Today it serves the profit motives of its school more than it does the careers of its graduates.

That’s why the PhD is now the new vocational benchmark for CEOs and CFOs who realise that the professional qualifications and MBAs that propelled them through their careers are no longer relevant; that they no longer need the day to day skills they trained for. Other qualified personnel have taken on their responsibilities. To be leaders, they now require new skills rarely taught. A PhD reinvigorates the analytical mind. It rekindles the discipline they gained from the training they accrued earlier on. It is the surest route with which to gain the same professional momentum on the Board with which they were rewarded by the professional degrees that kick started their careers.

Best of all, a brace of PhDs on a Board can create an environment that applies strategic thinking over ten years, and not just tactical strategy over a three year period, the average duration of today’s business leader tenure. Perhaps in the future, PhD CEOs and CFOs will earn the respect with which to earn that ten year life cycle, instead of being regarded merely as short term candidates.

The PhD business leader. More arsonist than bookworm

A modern Board no longer hires from a business school.  It is a business school in itself, a talent factory and an incubator for continued, connected, best of breed management training, designed around strategic concerns. The best ideas after all often come not from within, but from without an organisation. That’s how CEOs and CFOs and their Boards who engage with a research discipline also have an opportunity to modernise the impact, quality and relevance of research in the management field, which, as Peter Drucker once explained, is a key contributor to stability in democracies. Management research needs to reconnect with management reality.

PhD business leaders also look to their own futures, not just that of the enterprise. The corporate afterlife, in which retirement and longevity offer a life on the gold course, also offer higher intellectual rewards than Sudoku, from Non Executive positions to second careers.  A PhD acquired in one’s fifties equips a retired business leader long into the future.

Such CEOs and CFOs are succeeding by disrupting the things they love most, their organisations. They put cats among pigeons and challenge aspiring managers at all levels to rejuvenate their learning. That’s why PhD business leaders are not bookworms, they are fire starters.


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