The path and performance of a company leader: A historical examination of the education and cognitive ability of Fortune 500 CEOsJonathan Wai & Heiner Rindermann (2015)
(o) Becoming and performing as CEO can be considered a difficult mental test battery.
(o) To test this idea, Fortune 500 CEO education/ability was assessed from 1996 to 2014
(o) Across the last two decades ≈ 40% of CEOs were on the top 1% of cognitive ability.
(o) Even within CEOs, education/ability was associated with company gross revenue.
(o) The CEO filtering structure has remained similar across the last two decades.
The path to becoming a CEO (and performance on the job) can be viewed as a difficult cognitive challenge. One way to examine this idea is to see how highly selected CEOs are in terms of education and cognitive ability. The extent to which Fortune 500 CEOs were selected on education and cognitive ability at an earlier age was retrospectively assessed at four time points that spanned 1996 to 2014 (Total N = 1991). Across the last 19 years, between 37.5% and 41.0% of these CEOs were found to attend an elite school which likely placed them in the top 1% of cognitive ability. People in the top 1% of ability, therefore, were likely overrepresented among these CEOs, at about 37 to 41 times the base rate. Even within each of the four samples, higher CEO education and cognitive ability was associated with higher gross revenue of the CEO's company. Although Fortune 500 CEOs were highly selected on education and cognitive ability, when placed in the context of a broader array of occupations in the extreme right tail of achievement (e.g., politicians, judges, billionaires, journalists, academics, powerful people, and other business elites), CEOs were not at the top. This showed the wide cognitive ability range (and mental test difficulty) across various occupations that compose the U.S. elite. That Fortune 500 CEOs had similar education and cognitive ability selectivity over time shows that the CEO (and perhaps business) occupational and filtering structure has remained relatively unchanged across the last two decades.