Today’s announcement by the 3M Corporation that it had replaced rock star CEO James McNerney, Jr., with George W. Buckley, the low-profile but rock solid former CEO of Brunswick Corporation, is a sign of the times.
According to a Spencer Stuart study, more and more CEOs are being selected based on performance rather than pedigrees. In fact, fewer than 10 percent of the CEOs of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies hold an Ivy League degree (fewer than half as many as 15 years ago). That trend brings back an interesting memory of my days at a division of J. Walter Thompson, where it was all about style and pedigree. I recall a working lunch with the CEO, CFO and creative director of our firm. At the meeting, the CEO was praising the agency’s strategic planner, "She went to Brown, you know. That accounts for her rigor and intellectual energy," he sniffed. The CEO then asked each of us where we’d gone to college. When we were done, he paused and said, "We should all be ashamed of ourselves. Here we are at a major firm and not one of us has an Ivy League diploma."
I thought his logic was twisted then, and it’s even more perverse in hindsight. Happily business and industry seems to be getting over its affair with the CEO superstars of yesteryear and is, instead, opting for people who’ve proven themselves in the trenches….where a degree from Harvard or Yale doesn’t mean a thing.
What a narrow view of the world your former CEO and others like him have held. My own alma mater, the University of Illinois, a land-grant university set deep in the heartland, has spawned more CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and winners of Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes than any other university.
The people who attend these public and/or less celebrated institutions have often had to pay their own way, so they learned early on how to make their own success — something that probably happens less often among students at Ivy League schools. The drive these graduates exhibit, coupled with what’s likely to be a broader exposure to the culture of the have’s as well as the have-not’s, can produce the kind of leaders we need if our corporations are to compete with the formidable business skills of India and China.
Glad the like of 3M are seeing that.