Degrees are vital in today's workforce but even more important is the way a student approaches his or her university education, according to one of New Zealand's most experienced executive search consultants.
Ian Taylor, executive director of Sheffield, says there are basically two types of university students - those who approach tertiary education as "a life-changing experience, open to learning new values and insights" and those who "may learn a few technical skills and whose experience is more functional; they just want to get out there and earn the money."
There is no question a degree aids that cause. A 2013 government-funded report called Moving On Up showed, five years after completing their studies, young professionals with a Bachelor degree were earning 53 per cent above the national average. Over 50 per cent of Bachelor graduates were in employment; close to 40 per cent were in further study.
But Taylor says, while having a degree puts a CV higher in the pile than those without higher education, employers look deeper when it comes to executive appointments.
"For me, it comes back to those people who really want to learn - not just in their chosen field but who open themselves up to a whole new range of values, thinking and perspectives. If you are at university just to do the work to achieve money and status, then good luck to you; you may well succeed - but your experience will be limited.
"Those who inspire themselves to push deeper, to ask the questions, who take advantage of the opportunities to probe and learn from their professors, to really open themselves up to new things - they are the ones who come out more critically capable, more tolerant, with broader perspectives, who can articulately put their case and who have a set of values they hold dear."
Such graduates, he says, have a better chance of developing the new thinking the world needs. Appointments of CEOs and other executives also hinge on more intangible qualifications.
"When you look for a CEO or a senior executive, you look for the ability to lead at a strategic level - leading with clarity." Other abilities included:
• Managing change
• Managing stakeholders, internally and externally
• Thinking and acting creatively
• Presenting credibly in word, deed and presentation style
• Calmness in a crisis
• Treating people with respect
• Consistency of logic and behaviour to ensure business goals are met
"You can see how those who push deeper in their university education can develop new interests and emerge with insight, maturity and intellect.
"Those who go through university with a more narrow perspective - and I think a lot go for reasons that do not expose them to the total opportunity offered - may succeed. This, after all, is a more utilitarian age but they will not necessarily become the well-rounded person we are talking about."
Taylor is an admirer of the US system where universities such as Cornell, Princeton and Harvard insist on an education beyond specialisation.
"The first thing you do as an undergraduate is an arts degree - everyone has to do one before they specialise as a doctor, lawyer, accountant, whatever," he says. "It's a great thing to do; it exposes people to the liberalism, humanities and perspectives of an arts degree and places them in courses which stretch them beyond their speciality.
"If you look back at the qualities we look for as executive searchers, it isn't just about knowledge of the subject, it is also about the things humanities bring you and that balance of competency and personal skills.
"Sure, the workplace today demands a higher skill-set, a high degree of financial and technical skills and will enable you to make more money. For some people, that's enough - but it shouldn't be."
Ian Taylor has held a variety of positions since joining Sheffield as a Partner/Director in 1991. He headed the Executive Search and Organisational Performance practices before becoming Managing Director in 1999.