What does the 'average' FTSE 100 CEO look like?

Shock: the identikit top boss is a white man in his 50s.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 20 Apr 2017

How do you become a FTSE 100 CEO? Ask one, and they’ll usually demure. It was all luck and hard work, they’ll say, neglecting to mention the burning ambition, raw talent and nose for networking that went along with them. Look at FTSE 100 CEOs, however, and some less obvious patterns begin to emerge about their backgrounds and career paths.

FTSE 100 CEOS are more likely to be promoted internally

According to research by recruitment firm Heidrick and Struggles, 61% got the top spot via this route, compared to 34% who were headhunted (there are five founders who never had this problem). Executives coming up through the ranks in big firms have an advantage over CEOs of smaller businesses hoping to upscale, according to Heidrick and Struggles’ Jenni Hibbert.


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‘Where a FTSE 100 CEO has come up the general management route, they have cut their teeth running a discrete business unit or geography before being appointed into the top job. This is more usual than having run a smaller organisation, because experience in a complex, large scale organisation is key,’ Hibbert says.  

FTSE 100 CEOs often have a finance background

Over a third (36) of top bosses came via the finance function, twice the number who came from sales and marketing. To an extent, this reflects the fact that banks and insurance companies are heavily represented on the FTSE 100, but it also seems to say something about British corporate culture.

Finance is a more common background than engineering in FTSE 100 industrial firms, for instance, something you don’t find in the US, France or Germany.

FTSE 100 CEOs don’t have MBAs or Oxbridge degrees

You might assume Oxbridge and MBAs would feature heavily on the most sparkling CVs, but most have neither – only 30% have MBAs according to Heidrick and Struggles (though 70% have an advanced degree of some form), while the Sutton Trust puts Oxbridge education at 31%.

Of course, that might have something to do with the fact that 40 of the top 100 UK bosses were born abroad, itself reflecting the international mix of FTSE 100 companies and an openness to international talent in British business.

FTSE 100 CEOs are old, white, rich men

Last but not least, the elephant in the room. The UK’s top 100 bosses are overwhelmingly white (96%) and male (93%). Four-fifths of them are over 50 (okay, so ‘old’ is a little unfair; the average is 54) and, judging by their salaries, it’s a fair bet to say they’re universally rich too. Not exactly the poster children of 21st century diversity.

It’s not their fault of course, nor really the fault of their companies, which no doubt mean what they say about inclusivity and finding the best talent, wherever it may be. There’s also no reason to doubt that the top 100 executives in Britain are indeed a talented and experienced bunch who deserve to be there.

That last point is of course a major reason why so few CEOs break the mould. They rose through the ranks at a time when, for various reasons, it was a major advantage to be a white man. This gave them invaluable experience of senior roles that women and BAME people with equal talent were less likely to get.

The result is that even if business has become completely meritocratic and inclusive today – and few would argue it is, improvements notwithstanding - it will take time (think decades) for this to filter through to the upper echelons of our biggest firms. Expect the profile of FTSE 100 CEOs to change little over the next five years.


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 Image credit: Doug Kline/The Conmunity - Pop Culture Geek/Flickr

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