What to include in a CEO job description

By Robert Half 24 May 2019

Hiring the most qualified candidate for the role of CEO will depend on how accurate and attractive your CEO job description is.

Amongst the selection criteria, education and experience stand out as the most important factors alongside less tangible (but highly important) considerations such as personality, integrity and cultural match.

Deciding which consideration is of foremost importance, however, is never easy. We’ve all heard the story of the young genius who vaulted their way to the top job without a degree. But it’s also relatively rare, especially in Hong Kong where research by Robert Half’s CEO Tracker found that 82% of HSI-listed CEOs* hold an undergraduate degree.

The truth is that there is no truly right or wrong answer when it comes to weighing up education versus experience. But there are still lots of clues that you can gather to build up a picture of which of these factors matters the most to your CEO recruitment process.

Is a degree important?

In Hong Kong, a strong educational background will certainly help to open doors on the way to the top job. More CEOs hold an MBA (25%), while only 11% have a Masters of Economics. By contrast, just 18% of the region’s CEOs do not hold an undergraduate degree, and barely a third (32%) don’t have a postgraduate degree.

One key discovery was that not all of the three most popular diplomas/degrees held by CEOs are typically associated with the skills needed to run a company – these being the Bachelor of Science degree (13%), Bachelor of Economics (10%), and Bachelor of Arts (6%). This suggests that the foundational skills gained during a degree – such as problem solving, critical thinking, writing, and researching – matter more in your CEO description than the specific field of study.

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Length of career

Along with a strong educational background, a capable CEO will be able to demonstrate wide and varied experience in business, plus a proven track record of success. As such, successful CEOs are most often seasoned professionals who have acquired knowledge, wisdom, and sound judgement over time.

The average age of a Hong Kong CEO is 57, while the youngest is 40, showing that a considerable amount of professional and life experience is generally required for the job. The oldest is 91, so advanced age also isn’t necessarily a barrier.

Areas of experience

Running a profit and loss (P&L) operation, managing a budget, and setting a strategic vision are generally considered critical prerequisites to reaching the top job.

Accordingly, over half (53%) of Hong Kong CEOs have prior experience in business management. This helps to give them a well-rounded understanding of all aspects of a business, including accounting, finance, marketing, sales, operations, and human resources. Additionally, 24% of local CEOs have industry experience in finance, showing the value of being able to crunch the numbers that drive revenue and keep expenses under control.

Another important area to consider in your CEO job description is technology, which is reshaping innovation strategies and opening the door for new products, services and business models. Currently, just 9% of Hong Kong CEOs have industry experience in technology. Chief executives don’t have to hold a postgraduate degree in computing or understanding coding to lead digital transformation efforts. They do, however, need to be able to keep track of digital innovations and recognise the possibilities and opportunities they present.

International experience

Hong Kong’s position as a global financial and commercial hub means that overseas experience is highly valued by local companies, especially among their executive teams. As such, 89% of HSI-listed CEOs have worked outside of Hong Kong. The most locations were found to be Mainland China (64%), United States (10%), United Kingdom (6%), Australia (5%), and Macau (3.5%).

Personal qualities

Along with a solid educational background and ample business experience, CEOs need to be able to embody the personal qualities that underpin success in the role. They need to set the strategy and future direction of the business, while being accountable to shareholders and the board of directors. Hence, they need to be clear communicators who are capable of both giving direction and accepting expert opinion. They must be energetic, calm under pressure, and objective, all while having the creative ideas needed to give the business a competitive advantage.

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A CEO job description requires balance

Getting back to the question of education versus experience, it would appear that both are certainly important factors on the path to becoming a chief executive of a Hong Kong company.

But while a degree is a good first step on the road to a successful business career, there is no substitute for a strong and diverse track record of management experience and delivering outstanding business results.

*ABOUT THE RESEARCH - Robert Half has conducted research on CEOs leading companies featured on the Hang Seng Composite LargeCap Index (HSLI), by analysing publicly available sources of information about the HSLI CEOs. The objective is to track trends, including their professional and educational background, industry experience, gender, and length of tenure. The research was conducted between the dates of 20/03/19 and 12/04/19. The LargeCap Index includes 112 companies, representing the top 80% of total market capitalisation of the Hang Seng Composite Index. These companies are the largest listed companies operating in Hong Kong, which include a blend of organisations founded in Hong Kong, Mainland China and overseas.

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