Is Marketing, Finance, Operations, or Engineering the Best Path to CEO?


Which functional area seems to best prepare individuals for a role as F100 CEO? It’s a question I often hear from marketers, engineers, and others looking to create a path to the C-suite. They want to know if there is a functional orientation at the start of their career that will allow them to climb the ladder more easily.

To find out, I looked at the backgrounds of F100 CEOs and identified several factors associated with their career path: undergraduate schools, undergraduate degrees, graduate schools, graduate degrees, educational majors, functional focus, number of years in their current company (of which they are CEO) and companies that produce the most CEOs (methodology below). In previous articles I have explored the undergraduate and graduate schools most frequented by F100 CEOs, the number of companies for which F100 CEOs have worked, the first corporate choices and undergraduate degrees of F100 executives.

In this article, I explore the top functional choices made by F100 CEOs – the first functional area that F100 CEOs pursued outside of school.

Surprisingly, operations have been the functional starting point for most F100 CEOs, with 25% having started their careers in an operational role. Finance was the second most popular choice (22% of F100 CEOs started their careers in finance), engineering the third (17%), and sales / marketing the fourth (13%). Accounting ranked fifth most often (11%) and law sixth (7%). Interestingly, management and consulting were the last, each with just 3% of F100 CEOs starting their careers in these fields.

It should be noted that in many cases the early career function chosen by the CEOs of F100 is also the dominant function of the company they run. For example, the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, Liberty Mutual Insurance Groups, and AIG all started in finance-related roles. These three companies operate in the field of financial services.

Lockheed Martin, Cisco Systems, 3M, Conoco Philips and Honeywell are led by CEOs who started their careers in engineering. UPS, FedEx and Comcast are led by CEOs trained in operations.

While this is not always the case, for some companies there may be a primary and central function that CEOs emerge from (e.g. CEOs of Ford and Valero Energy have marketing / sales training). To determine if this is a pattern or a one-time event, one would need to investigate the CEO’s choices over time. While this is not the purpose of this study, it would be up to students and those making early career decisions to examine the function from which the CEO emerges and see if there is a model. If you aspire to become a CEO, it may make more sense to identify a company that treats your functional area as a breeding ground for future CEOs.

For more information on the career paths of Fortune 100 CEOs, check out the following: undergraduate institutions they attended, graduate schools they attended, number of companies they attended worked, the early career companies they worked in, the undergraduate degrees they earned, and the early career roles they chose to work in.

Join the discussion: @KimWhitler

Disclosure: I am an assistant professor in the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

Methodology: To identify CEO information, a number of sources of information were used: 1) Bloomberg, 2) company websites, 3) company proxy statements, 4) press releases , 5) Wikipedia, among others. While most of the information was accessible, there were 10 occasions when the data was not available or conflicted between resources. In such cases, the CEO was excluded from the total number of CEOs in the calculated statistic if he was not available / inconsistent. In addition, some companies have been acquired and the CEO has moved to the acquiring company. In such cases, the tenure of the CEO of the current company was calculated from the time of the merger / acquisition. CEOs were identified in September 2018 and searches were conducted in winter 2018/2019. Special thanks to Wilkerson Anthony, an exceptional research assistant I worked with from 2014 to 2019, who helped find and code the information. Thanks also to Tyla Gallegos who created the data images.