What Do You Need to Become an Executive? Degree, Apprenticeship or Character?

It’s a long way to the top, but where do you start? Some of you may be young CEO and count yourselves lucky, some of you may have never stepped into leadership before. So do you need a degree to become an executive? Or maybe go via an apprenticeship? Start as a company clerk and work your way up, or just be an all-round leader? Debbie Gardiner, CEO of leading training provider Qube Learning, has some thoughts.

I am 100% sure that a Degree is not a pre-requisite to becoming an Executive or a CEO and I’m living proof of it. I started my career working for a large blue chip retailer and took every opportunity I had to progress and develop myself; most of which was whilst I had a young family. In 2000, at the age of 40 I made a career change and moved to Qube Learning, I was appointed Managing Director in 2006 and promoted to CEO in 2009. I have a CIPD Operational Management NVQ level 5 and run a successful training business with a turnover in excess of £12m and 200 employees. I’ve always had a keen interest in people and made it my business to get a good understanding of the principles of HR and employment law. The support functions within any business are there to provide a service to the rest of the business; HR and Finance are key to all sectors and must be incorporated into training and development plans for aspiring leaders. For me the most important attributes of a business leader are a desire to be successful, a passion for your chosen sector, an understanding of accountability, remembering that your people are your greatest asset, a hunger to learn and a willingness to learn from the mistakes we make. All of which can be summarised as knowledge, skills, behaviours and experience.

Apprenticeships are a highly effective way to develop those all-important knowledge, skills and behaviours. Apprenticeships start at level 2 and progress through to post-graduate level 7. Apprenticeships are suitable for school leavers and adults alike. This means that as we start our working life, or as we progress in our careers and in many cases have a change of direction, an Apprenticeship is an ideal and flexible development programme that allows you to earn whilst you learn and gain meaningful work experience without incurring a debt. New entrants may start at level 2, whilst more experienced will have a higher entry point. A key success factor is for the individual (student) and their employer to work together to plan a programme that meets the needs of all parties and has a clear progression route.

English Apprenticeship Reforms was introduced in May 2017, employers with a payroll of over £3m now pay the Apprenticeship Levy. This has opened up many opportunities for new Apprenticeship Standards to be delivered and most notably the newer Higher (level 5) and Degree (level 6) Apprenticeships, which are aimed at aspiring or new Senior Managers and Executives. Smaller employers have access to a minimum 90% contribution form the Education and Skills Funding Agency towards their Apprenticeships, which is excellent value for money. It’s important that employers of all types and sizes engage with Apprenticeships as part of their succession planning and to give new and aspiring business leaders a real choice; one size doesn’t fit all. Students and their employers often comment on one of the main benefits of taking the Apprenticeship route over a traditional Degree route, is that they are able to hit the ground running and add value, meaning a return on investment for both parties.

We can all think of some great leaders that don’t have a Degree… Richard Branson, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, Coco Chanel, Vidal Sassoon and Walt Disney to name but a few. These great leaders all come from different backgrounds and different sectors, all had an idea and passion, and all worked hard to develop their skills, increase their knowledge and adapt their behaviours to become great leaders that are instantly recognisable today. We can’t all make the headlines but given the right opportunity great leaders can and will emerge.

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