'Better the devil you know?' 

3 minute read  14.05.2019

Report overview | Easy to classify — the education and experiences of Australian CEOs

A report into diversity among ASX 200 CEOs has concluded that Australian firms remain conservative in making executive appointments, tending to seek out CEOs that share similar education/experiences drawn from a narrow talent pool.  This prompts report writer, Conrad Liveris, to question whether Australian companies are (necessarily) sourcing the best talent available.  

Key takeouts

  • Lack of gender diversity: The report found that there are more  ASX200 CEOs called Andrew than there are women - the 'average' Australian CEO is a man, most likely named Andrew (7% of CEOs) or Michael (5.5%).  By comparison, 5% of ASX 200 CEOs are women.


  • Lack of diversity of skills/experience? The report found that the CEO candidate pool has remained narrow with most CEOs sharing similar educational experiences and following similar pathways to become CEO and that this has changed little over time.


  • Are firms (necessarily) sourcing the best available talent? The report does seek to suggest that firms are necessarily making the wrong decisions with respect to CEO appointments.  However, in light of the lack of diversity among ASX200 CEOs, it does question whether firms should consider revisiting their approach, to ensure they are recruiting the best available talent.


Consultant Conrad Liveris has released a report, based on the annual reports/websites of ASX200 companies, identifying commonalities and norms in the educational and professional experiences of CEOs. According to his analysis, the CEO candidate pool has remained narrow (despite the fact that business is increasingly global) and the pathway to become CEO has likewise remained narrow and has changed little over time. The report questions whether, in the context of increasing community expectations of Australian business, businesses should consider revisiting their approach to ensure they are recruiting the best available talent rather than sticking with the 'devil they know'.

Some key points

  • More CEOs called Andrew than there are women? The 'average' Australian CEO is a man, most likely named Andrew (7% of CEOs) or Michael (5.5%). By comparison, 5.5% of ASX 200 CEOs are women
  • 70% were promoted internally to CEO. Before becoming CEO, the report found that CEOs were most likely CFO of the same company, or headed a business unit within it. For those that weren't CFOs prior to appointment as CEO, 16% have principally finance experience. There are no CEOs appointed from business-wide roles (eg HR, marketing, legal). No CEO has headed more than two listed companies.
  • 75% have principally domestic experience. Having said this, CEOs generally have some (but limited) international experience or remit in roles (usually earlier in their careers). If the CEO does have international experience, these are mostly in single jurisdictions/markets. The report suggests this may be a 'distinct weakness' in an export oriented market.
  • 65% have 10+ years of experience in the industry his company operates in
  • 6% of CEOs are founders
  • Education: The report found that CEOs tend to have similar educational experiences, reflective of the years in which they were educated (the 1970s and the 1980s).
    • Most attended 'sandstone' universities in the cities in which they were born and schooled and (most likely) now work
    • Most studied engineering, business or economics: 27% studied engineering, 25% studied business or economics (becoming accountants or finance professionals eg bankers), 6% have bachelor of arts degrees, and 4.5% studied law and became admitted lawyers
    • The proportion of CEOs who have undertaken further study is higher than in the general population: 34% have undertaken further study and 27.5% have an MBA. This is 'noticeably higher' than the general population, where the rate of postgraduate education is ~4%


  • 'There is a narrowness in who becomes CEO of an Australian company': Mr Liveris is quoted as saying that the results indicate that Australian firms have a 'very trusted method for choosing who will lead their business' and that the pathway to get to the CEO role is fairly clear and fairly narrow. Even where CEOs don't commence their career on the traditional pathway, they tend to fall into it at some point. Mr Liveris reportedly added that the narrow, common pathway towards the CEO role demonstrates assumptions about who should be CEO.
  • Time to consider revisiting this approach? Mr Liveris makes clear that the report is not intended to suggest that the current approach to appointing CEOs is necessarily flawed/dictate to business that the approach should necessarily change. Rather he writes that, the report 'intends to stimulate thought on whether that [the current approach] is fit for purpose. Indications from the market suggest that this has not been substantially changed in decades.' Mr Liveris adds that the limited international experience of CEOs in particular, may be a 'distinct weakness'.

About the report

The report was based on a review of publicly available discloses from ASX200 companies about the education and professional experiences of their CEOs. The material was gathered in January 2019 and reviewed in March 2019. Conclusions are based on the disclosures made in annual reports and websites by those companies. Additional evidence was sourced from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, specifically Census analysis, 4261, 6227 and 6202.

Response to the report

  • Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) CEO Louise Davidson is quoted as saying that the results highlight a risk that companies are not taking advantage of the broader talent pool available. 'This is yet another reminder that more work needs to be done on the diversity of management teams'.

[Note: Among the policy reforms put forward by ACSI in response to the Financial Services Royal Commission is a call for all listed entities to be required to set a time frame within which they will achieve board gender balance (40:40:20). ACSI suggests that if this is not achieved by 2025, then regulatory intervention should occur. See: Governance News 08/05/2019]

  • Australian Institute of Company Directors general manager of advocacy, Louise Petschler, reportedly expressed a similar view to that put forward by ACSI. 'Just as boards need to work harder to improve diversity around board tables they also need to ensure they are making use of the available talent pool when making CEO appointments… Gender diversity is obviously a critical consideration in this mix' Ms Petschler reportedly said.

[Sources: Conrad Liveris report: Easy to Classify — The education and experiences of Australian CEOs; The New Daily 11/05/2019]

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