New research reveals the most popular routes into the executive suite.


Elite Member & Lifer
Aug 20, 2000
24 years on average to reach the top job? Argh, I've got a long ways to go. :p

How to get to the top

Marketing used to be the route to the chief executive's chair, but the world has changed. Now ... it is finance chiefs who are most likely to get the top job, though experience in operations?running parts of the company?is also essential.

CFO Magazine (a sister publication of The Economist) found in 2005 that one-fifth of chief executives in America were former chief financial officers, almost double the share of a decade earlier. The importance of quarterly financial reporting, and closer scrutiny since the imposition of the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate-governance act, have put CFOs in the limelight?and given them the chance to shine.

Another factor in reaching the top is whether you stay with the company you joined as a youngster. Ms Hamori's research (with Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School in Philadelphia) looked at companies in the S&P 500 and the FTSEurofirst 300. She finds that ?lifers? get to the top in 22 years (in America) and 24 years in Europe. ?Hoppers? who jump between four or more companies, by contrast, take at least 26 years on average to become chief executives.

Insiders get promotions that reflect their potential, because their bosses have enough information to be reasonably confident about their ability. When executives switch from one company to another, however, they tend to move less far up the hierarchy, the researchers found.

The time taken to reach the top is falling. The average time from first job to chief executive fell from 28 years in 1980 to 24 in 2001. Successful executives are spending less time than they used to in each intermediate job?an average of four years?and they fill five posts on the way up, down from six. One reason for this acceleration is that company hierarchies are flatter than they used to be.

Another important shift is the advent of female chief executives. In 2001 women accounted for 11% of bosses at leading American companies, according to the Hamori/Cappelli survey; in the early 1980s there were none.


Mar 5, 2001
It's be interesting to see how the "hoppers" have fared in the past. I firmly believe that "hopping" is becoming more of a norm than an exception, especially in finance.


Diamond Member
Jul 2, 2004
I'm guessing it varies a lot depending on the line of business you're talking about. My company (food service industry) has almost always recruited the chief out of operations.