Route to the Top 2018
Chief Executive Officer

Route to the Top 2018

The destination may be the same, but research suggests that the path to the corner office varies across 12 Western European countries and the United States.
Heidrick & Struggles
Route to the top 2018

What do the current CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies look like? Some 95% are male, two-thirds hold advanced degrees, and almost half have experience in finance or general management. Those are among the findings of Heidrick & Struggles’ fifth in a series of demographic studies of chief executives begun in 2011 and expanded this year from 5 countries to 13—12 in Western Europe plus the United States.

Behind this picture of the typical CEO globally lies considerable variation from country to country. For instance, 84% of CEOs in the United States were promoted from within their companies, while the average across the 12 European countries was 64%. The proportion of chief executives who hold MBAs ranges from a high of 47% in Portugal to a low of 13% in Italy. And while the overall proportion of CEOs who were under 50 years of age when they were appointed stands at 44%, the figure ranges from a high of 64% in Norway to a low of 22% in the United States.

The research1 encompasses 674 current chief executives of the companies listed on the following country indexes: Denmark, OMX Copenhagen 20; Finland, OMX Helsinki 25; France, SBF 120; Germany, DAX and MDAX; Italy, FTSE MIB; Netherlands, AEX; Norway, OBX; Portugal, PSI-20; Spain, IBEX 35; Sweden, OMX Stockholm 30; Switzerland, SMI Expanded; United Kingdom, FTSE 100; United States, Fortune 100.

Key findings include the following:

  • Some 67% of CEOs were promoted from within.

  • The average age at appointment as chief executive is 50.

  • The average age of CEOs across all 13 countries is 56.

  • The proportion of CEOs who are women ranges from a high of just over 8% in the United Kingdom to a low of 0% in Denmark and Italy.

  • Some 46% of all CEOs have previous experience as either CFOs or COOs.

  • In 10 of the 13 countries studied, the vast majority of CEOs are nationals, with Switzerland being the only country where non-nationals outnumber locals.

  • Almost half of all CEOs have worked in at least two countries; however, in the United States, only one in four has any cross-border experience.


1 All findings for the countries represented in the 2018 report are based on data that was collected during spring/summer 2018.

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