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The degree that makes most CEOs: Not law or business

BHP chief executive Andrew Mackenzie, Macquarie's Shemara Wikramanayake and Qantas' Alan Joyce. (Images: AAP)

Companies are not silly – they would not have anyone underqualified working in the most important job in the place, chief executive officer.

The big boss must show leadership, numerical smarts, people skills and business acumen. But what academic background do most of them come from?

Most people assume law and business graduates end up in CEO positions, but the new Australian Top 50 CEOs report has shown that's not necessarily the case.

When I was an 18-year-old engineering student, I was constantly told by my university lecturers that engineers dominate chief executive and chairperson positions in the real world.

And that wasn't far off, according to the Top 50 report commissioned by Apollo Communications.

Coles boss Steven Cain and Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar. (Images: Coles and Atlassian)

"What it shows is that studying science at university is the most popular way to become a top Australian CEO, with 12 of our top 50 corporate leaders having chosen that path over more established degrees like business or law," said Apollo chief Adam Connolly.

Science graduates in this year's top 50 chiefs include Qantas' Alan Joyce, BHP's Andrew Mackenzie, Coles' Steven Cain and Transurban's Scott Charlton.

Connolly said that business graduates were very much a minority on the list.

"Ironically, only two of the Top 50 CEOs – Steve Johnston of Suncorp and Graham Kerr of South32 – completed a Bachelor of Business degree."

University of NSW produced the most number of undergraduate degrees in the Top 50, while Macquarie University in Sydney was the most popular for post-graduate qualifications.

Commonwealth Bank's Matt Comyn, Macquarie's Shemara Wikramanayake and AGL's Brett Redman are three examples of undergrads coming out of UNSW.

“Atlassian co-founders Mike Cannon-Brookes and Scott Farquhar founded their company in 2002 after graduating together from the UNSW,” said Connolly.

“Atlassian is now worth more than US$34 billion.”

After science, commerce, high school, law, economics, engineering, arts, business, medicine and psychology degrees were represented in the Top 50.

For post-graduate qualifications, predictably 26 per cent of the top 50 had a Master of Business Administration (MBA). However, the majority (56 per cent) actually had no postgraduate degree.

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