Will the Lack of a Degree Stop Your Ascent up the Executive Career Ladder?

Will the Lack of a Degree Stop Your Ascent up the Executive Career Ladder_.jpg

Do you have nightmares about being eliminated from consideration for your dream executive job because you do not have a college degree?

While it is a fact that some employers will reject a candidate who lacks the stated educational requirements for a position, there are plenty of employers who will welcome your extensive experience and proven ability to deliver business results.

The key to succeeding in the executive marketplace without a degree is to demonstrate to the potential employer that you are an outstanding performer who can be counted upon to deliver exceptional business results. If your resume has been crafted powerfully and you present yourself compellingly in interviews, employers will be so impressed by the value you bring to the table that “shortcomings” in your education will likely be overlooked or offset.

If you have no college at all, a two-year degree, or an incomplete Bachelors or Masters degree, you can “beef up” the education section in your resume with professional development coursework and certifications you do have. If you have limited or no college, AND no professional development to highlight, you may wish to consider omitting the Education section entirely.

You may also list partial undergraduate or postgraduate education without dates, leaving further details for the interview (at which point you have already gotten your foot in the door). Simply indicate your major course of study, the institution, and its location. If you are then asked in an interview if you have a degree or, if not, why you did not obtain one, you could say something like: ”I found challenging work in the field and my career took off. However, I have actively pursued continuing education through professional and executive leadership seminars such as…”

Given a wealth of career experience, I see no need to devote much space on your resume to education, and would not recommend apologizing for the lack of the desired degree in your cover letter, either. Let the resume and your impressive abilities and accomplishments speak for themselves.

Even with the most masterfully crafted resume, there are companies who arbitrarily will not budge on an educational requirement. A company with a small-minded, no exceptions policy that all employees except for mailroom clerks and delivery drivers need a degree may not be your best bet, but there are plenty of companies that are smart enough to realize that it is what you can prove you can do that is important, not what a piece of paper says that you may know.

It is important to take care not to let the lack of an undergraduate or advanced degree affect your confidence, and to avoid defensiveness about it. Many, manyof my very successful executive clients do not have college degrees. And the world is full of well-known and extremely successful professionals, executives, and entrepreneurs who likewise do not have degrees. Some of them never graduated high school either—for example, famed journalist and news anchor Peter Jennings. Other notables with partial or no college educations are:

  • Michael Dell, billionaire founder and CEO of Dell, Inc.—dropped out of college at age 19

  • Bill Gates (who was just 10 points shy of a perfect score on his SATs), completed only two years at Harvard before he dropped out to form Microsoft.

  • Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook (now in its IPO), dropped out of college.

  • Larry Ellison of Oracle was a University of Illinois dropout (due to his adoptive mother’s passing).

  • Steve Jobs of Apple was a first-year college dropout.

  • Andrew Carnegie, industrialist and philanthropist, was an elementary school dropout.

  • David Ogilvy, advertising executive, was actually expelled from Oxford University.

  • David H. Komansky, retired chairman of Merrill Lynch, and Richard A. Grasso, who headed the New York Stock Exchange, also did not have college degrees.

Going way back, Benjamin Franklin, inventor, scientist, author, and entrepreneur, was primarily home-schooled. Ten of our U.S. Presidents never attended or completed college, including Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, and Truman.

So, if you are “sans degree,” you are in good company.

Whatever you do, do not state you have a degree if you do not. In addition to the fact that it is immoral (a lie), the public spectacles of top executives in both public and private sectors who have been summarily dismissed when it was revealed they had lied about their credentials should be a strong deterrent to this ill-advised strategy.