Why Volvo boss, former Aston Martin CEO says there must be more than one way to the top

Two automotive chiefs who hopped from shop to C-suite say the top tier in companies shouldn’t be just for people with university education.

“I really hope this doesn’t become a rare wind and that only people who have been lucky enough to get a degree can get into the C-suite, especially in Western countries where getting a higher-level education is more and more important.” getting more expensive,” Volvo Cars CEO Jim Rowan told Automotive News Europe. “I think talent is there in every field and at every level of business. Most people just need an opportunity.”

Rowan, who grew up in a blue-collar family in Glasgow, Scotland, said he was “lucky” to have had those opportunities.

He also credits his rise to his parents, who emphasized that education, work ethic and treating people with respect were key factors in getting the best out of himself.

Former Aston Martin boss Andy Palmer, now CEO of electric bus and van maker Switch Mobility, left school at age 15 and apprentices at a UK-based supplier at age 16.

“Apprenticeship is fantastic at teaching you your trade, but more importantly, it teaches you empathy with people at all levels,” Palmer told Automotive News Europe Congress in Prague last month.

Asked whether it’s hard or easy to match what he did today, Palmer said: “In part I think it’s probably harder now than it was in my time because so many more people have degrees. If you don’t have a degree you stand out more as a negative. I don’t think that’s right.”

While both men started out on the shop floor, each grew their practical knowledge by becoming lifelong learners who accumulated university degrees over the course of their working careers.

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For Palmer, the combination of the practical and the theoretical creates something special.

“I think companies that both encourage and allow Darwinism to prevail,” he said, “are probably going to get the best leadership.”