Beyond the Degree

Firms should focus more on a job candidate’s learning agility than the school the candidate attended, writes Korn Ferry’s Evelyn Orr.

In this regular column, Evelyn Orr, vice president and chief operating officer of the Korn Ferry Institute shares her thoughts on the intersection of career, relationships, and gender.

Over spring break, my daughter, preferring the role of anthropologist over official prospective student, took our family on several self-guided campus tours. We were visiting the East Coast, so naturally our path took us to many prestigious institutions. Along the way, we couldn’t help but reflect on the recent college admissions scandal, and how far some parents will go to ensure success for their kids.

My daughter was appalled by the brazen cheating. But the story she couldn’t get over had nothing to do with the scandal yet was related all the same: A college student who didn’t like to eat food covered in sauce had been protected by her parents from the topping her whole life. They helped her avoid sauce, even though she didn’t have a food allergy or sensitivity, so when she was confronted with sauce-covered dishes in the campus cafeteria, she couldn’t cope—so much so that she left school.

It’s an extreme example, but one that illustrates the perils of protectionism. Protection from challenge, struggle, rejection, or failure does not set people up for success. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

For many, attending a prestigious academic institution has long been seen as the first step toward climbing the corporate ladder. In fact, research shows that organizations put stock in school names when it comes to hiring. A 2016 study by Indeed found that more than 40% of C-suite executives believe top performers usually come from top universities. Moreover, 37% of managers who’ve graduated from elite colleges said they prefer to hire candidates from elite schools only.

But limiting talent pools by college pedigree can have ramifications for both the candidate and the company. Ultimately, it could hinder their ability to thrive in the new economy.

While schools matter, learning agility matters more. To drive results, business leaders need people who are able and willing to learn from experience, then apply that learning to perform successfully in an increasingly disruptive and uncertain business environment. Organizations will miss out on incredible talent if they’re focused only on a university’s name.

In a way, the admissions controversy highlights the need for companies to address unconscious bias toward college pedigree. One way that leaders can diversify their talent pool is by taking a broader, more thoughtful approach to campus recruiting. By diversifying their school lists, organizations can reach some of the country’s brightest, most successful candidates who, for one reason or another, didn’t attend an Ivy League school. After all, elite schools don’t have a monopoly on quality education, and increasingly, there’s a democratization of knowledge and experiences that can be acquired outside of an accredited institution. That means top performers can be found everywhere.

Take this, for example: Around a quarter of executives interviewed for the Korn Ferry Institute’s Women CEOs Speak study reported being the first to finish college in their families. Many of them were also told that college wasn’t an option. Socioeconomic inequities can create barriers to higher education, suggesting that heavily weighing college pedigree isn’t the best way to assess talent, though it may be a contributing factor.

Then there’s the interview process itself. Hiring managers should take more time to dig into a candidate’s educational journey, because the degree doesn’t tell the whole story. Sometimes, the choices a person makes in their education can be more reflective of the choices they’ll make in their career—more so than the name on their degree.

Some strides are being made, though. Because of the global war for talent, organizations have started to rethink their education requirements. Some are investing more in training programs to upskill employees without degrees for the roles they need. Others are focusing less on college pedigree and more on capabilities and experiences. Organizations need to start disrupting themselves if they want to stay ahead of the curve—and that includes expanding their mindset about where top talent can come from.

When it comes to my daughter’s future, she will attend a university that she chooses and chooses her—one that fits her unique criteria that she is still discerning. Her values are guiding her toward academic rigor, diversity, and interaction with the surrounding community, not name recognition for the sake of prestige. For my part, if I can stay out of her way and let her confront her own “sauce,” she will build the independence, work ethic, resilience, and agility that will set her up for success—however she defines it.