Path to the C-Suite: Formal Education or Self Education?

I am frequently asked by early to mid-career professionals whether they should go for another professional or academic qualification to accelerate their career. This is a difficult question and the answer really depends on the individual situation. The general rule I apply to answer this question, however, is simple. If you are already around your mid-career, it’s probably a little late for this level of investment.


I have no hesitation to say that our traditional educational system whether academic or professional, is significantly lagging behind the demands of today’s businesses. As a consequence we see increasing number of qualified professionals remaining unemployed or doing junior level jobs.

Today’s businesses are smarter with a brutal focus to make money. They value talent and require the skills that help them grow their business and create value. They care less about how many alphabets you have next to your name.

As a matter of fact, the value of a professional degree or certification has become limited to an entry ticket to the profession. Your career success largely depends how street smart you are to play the game of career warfare.

If you already hold a higher education qualification then don’t worry about adding additional certifications or degrees. You are considered highly educated and that makes you eligible for senior management jobs. What really matters to get those jobs, however, is your leadership skills and up to date business knowledge that can be learnt much faster through self-education.

If you have already reached around mid-career and have the ambition to climb up to the C-suite, a better strategy probably is to adopt the habits of continuous self-education for the rest of your career. To remain competitive in your field, you must spend at least 10% of your time on your professional and leadership development; preferably 15% and ideally 20%.

To achieve rapid growth and sustainable results in your career, create a structure for self-learning and follow these 5 rules:

1. Read Books:
Read at least one self-help or a business book a month. No matter how much information is available online, books have their special place and will never be obsolete. When you go through a particular topic in depth through reading a book, it gives you deeper insight that brings your knowledge to an expert level. Remember, leaders are readers.

2. Attend Seminar / Workshops:
Attend a 1-2 day live seminar or workshop each quarter on a topic that is critical for your leadership development. Chose trainers carefully. A good trainer or a coach can bring a dramatic improvement in your habits or mindset through short interactive sessions.

3. Read Business Magazines:
Read professional and business magazines. My favorites are Fortune, Forbs, Inc., Money, Fast Company, Success etc. These magazines bring the latest thoughts and innovative business ideas that will help you cultivate and nurture your habit of strategic thinking.

4. Watch Educational Videos / Read Blogs:
Develop the habit of watching short educational videos and subscribe to top bloggers in your field. Blogs are probably the first place where new world changing ideas are shared. You will earn a high ROI on your time if you can shift your habit from meaningless FB browsing to watching these short educational videos and reading blogs.

5. Follow Mentors / Role Models:
Chose a couple of mentors or role models and follow them closely. These need not be the actual people you meet in day-to-day life. With social media, we now have access to inspiring celebrity-level business leaders, coaches and gurus. Pick the ones that inspire you the most and follow them through their blogs, videos, articles, books etc.

If you are able to follow the above 5 rules as your well established habits, let me assure you, you can learn a lot more practical education, a lot faster and a lot cheaper than you can learn in a formal education environment. Your career success, after all, is all about delivering results.

Leave me a comment if I miss a poit.


Saleem Sufi is a CFO Leadership Coach and Strategy Expert with more than 20 years CFO level experience working for top world class Fortune 500 and Private Equity owned companies in Asia Pacific, Middle East, Europe and United States. He is the Founder and President of MECA CFO Alliance where he leads the CFO Academy with an entire focus on leadership development and career growth among the senior Finance community.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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8 thoughts on “Path to the C-Suite: Formal Education or Self Education?

  1. Thanks Mr. Sufi. These are useful tips. I believe there are much more important skills and values a person should carry or develop if he want to transition from mid career to top level. Some are:
    – Personal integrity and professional attitude towards peers and juniors. It looks simple point but hard to find easily.
    – Communication skills and crises management. It vary person to person and based on personal growth in which environment he or she grow.
    – Developing resources, sharing knowledge and correcting their weaknesses by learning from juniors ( biggest problem is ego)
    – Specifically from CFO standpoint, knowledge of IT current trends, global business complexities, multi-cultural environment is not easily to find. Modern days accounting and financial management are totally transformed into systems, business integration, industry best practice. Most (not all) accounting professionals still lack in handling these trends. Unfortunately in accounting professional, importance is not given seriously as part of formal training and coaching to accountants.

    Hope you find these points useful.

    Nadeem Zuberi

  2. Mr. Sofi
    Yes, It is good ideas and apprieciation from you those who are at middle manager.
    It is also useful to the professional and top managers.
    Thanks a lot.

  3. Brilliant work!
    Although its not a mid career for me but every idea you mentioned is worth considering for sure.
    Thanks Saleem really appreciate your work and guidance.

  4. Great advice for the professionals planning to improve their education. Continued professional development is an integral part of anyone’s professional life if he wants to excel.