The Secrets of Career Success in the 21st Century: How Do the Careers of European and US CEOs Compare? A New Study Suggests That We May Need to Rethink Some Popular Notions

By Hamori, Monika | European Business Forum, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Secrets of Career Success in the 21st Century: How Do the Careers of European and US CEOs Compare? A New Study Suggests That We May Need to Rethink Some Popular Notions


Hamori, Monika, European Business Forum


What are the secrets of career success in the modern business world? What experiences, qualifications and characteristics are required to get to the top? And how do career paths compare across countries and continents? Are they the same, for example, in the US as they are in Europe? These are just some of the questions we set out to answer in a major study that maps the career landscape of the twenty-first century. The results are surprising, and challenge many of the myths that have developed surrounding modern executive careers.

For example, conventional wisdom suggests that old-fashioned values such as loyalty no longer hold sway, and that moving between companies offers a faster route to the top. Yet our research shows that this is just one of several myths about modern career paths. So what are the key determinants of modern career success--and do they differ across continents?

To find out, we analysed the career paths of the CEOs of the 500 largest corporations in Europe and the 500 largest in the US. This sampling frame resulted in a total of 1001 CEOs: 500 for Europe and 501 for the USA, because one US corporation has co-CEOs. In Europe, the CEOs lead companies headquartered in 22 countries.

For each CEO, we looked at a range of factors--including age, educational background and qualifications (including the name of college or university), career history including names of all employing organisations, start and end dates of tenure at each organisation, the operational function in which the executives started their career, and the year of appointment to the CEO position. If the CEO had international experience, we collected data on the duration, the host company and the host country of the assignment. Career history data on the US CEOs was given to us by Spencer Stuart, a top-5 global executive search firm.

Filling in the gaps

We also looked at previous research to understand whether the picture has changed. Interestingly, although a great deal has been written on the subject of career paths, surprisingly little hard research has been done. The studies that have been carried out have mostly been in the US; there has been little empirical work in Europe. Moreover, most of the evidence on executive careers comes from interviews that often involve fewer than 50 executives, rather than from large-scale surveys. Typically, the executive population extends to only one or two European countries--most commonly the UK, France and Germany--and the studies focus on a limited number of topics, such as the socio-economic background of the executives or the role of elite educational institutions in careers (see, for example, Barsoux and Lawrence 1991; Schmidt 1993; Mayer and Whittington 1999). In the most comprehensive research on this topic, David Norburn (1987) compared the senior vice presidents of the largest US and UK companies in 1980 and found that UK executives are more mobile than their US counterparts: they spent fewer years with their current organisation and changed companies more often.

Our study attempted to fill these gaps in existing research. In particular, we examined the ways that contemporary European executive careers are different from those in the US. Also, we identified the work experiences that bring the greatest career-related rewards. And we focused on topics that have not been examined in depth before, such as the loyalty of executives to corporations, or international experience.

Modern career myths

What emerged from our analysis were some intriguing findings about executive careers in general, and about the differences in executive career paths in Europe and the United States. None of the often-held beliefs about European executives--for example, that they are more conservative in terms of age and gender diversity, that they are more likely to stay with the same organisation throughout their career, or that they hold on to their CEO position longer than their US counterparts--turn out to be true. …

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