The Experts’ Advantage

American boardrooms are filled with MBAs, especially from Harvard, while firms in the rest of the developed world (with the possible exception of Germany) seem to prefer professional managers over technical or scientific talent. But organizations that put experts in charge almost always perform better.

LONDON – Nearly everyone who sits on Google’s board of directors has at least one computer science or engineering degree or doctorate. There are two university presidents and eminent scholars – Stanford University’s John Hennessy and former Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman – and several members of the National Academy of Engineering and other illustrious organizations. For Google, it pays to have technical expertise at the top.

But Google is an unusual corporate giant in promoting those with scientific prowess to the top of the management ladder. Beyond Silicon Valley, few senior corporate executives boast technical expertise in the products that their companies produce. American boardrooms are filled with MBAs, especially from Harvard, while firms in the rest of the developed world (with the possible exception of Germany) seem to prefer professional managers over technical or scientific talent.

Nowadays, it seems as anomalous to have knowledge workers serve as professional leaders as it once did to have scientists in the boardroom. It was previously thought that leadership is less necessary in knowledge-intensive organizations, where experts were assumed to be superior because they were motivated by intellectual pleasure rather than such extrinsic motivations as profit growth and cost targets.

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