All Articles Leadership Careers A ban on what-makes-CEOs-successful studies?

A ban on what-makes-CEOs-successful studies?

5 min read


Today’s guest post is by Dan McCarthy, author of the blog Great Leadership. His day job involves overseeing leadership and management development at a Fortune “Great Place to Work,” “Training Top 125,” and “High Impact Learning” (HILO 80) company.

I hereby announce a ban on “What makes CEOs successful” studies. Or at least the silly, misleading stories that report on the studies. Or the ones that I don’t like.

It seems there’s been a bunch of these recently, and I admit, I’m a sucker for them. I read ‘em all, and pass the interesting ones along to my readers.

“In Praise of Dullness,” published as an op-ed in the May 18 New York Times, just put me over the edge. It’s not so much the study and findings … it’s the way journalists interpret and report the results.

And I admit, I’m guilty of doing the same thing. It’s a way to attract attention and be provocative. The problem is, it’s misleading, confusing to aspiring leaders, and irresponsible.

David Brooks (who I consider to be a top-notch business journalist) came across a July 2008 study conducted by three academic researchers. Here’s the original abstract from the National Bureau of Economic Research:

We study the characteristics and abilities of CEO candidates for companies involved in buyout (LBO) and venture capital (VC) transactions and relate them to hiring decisions, investment decisions, and company performance. Candidates are assessed on more than thirty individual abilities. The abilities are highly correlated; a factor analysis suggests there are two primary factors with intuitive characterizations — one for general ability and one that contrasts team-related, interpersonal skills with execution skills. Both LBO and VC firms are more likely to hire and invest in CEOs with greater general abilities, both execution- and team-related. Success, however, is more strongly related to execution skills than to team-related skills. Success is, at best, only marginally related to incumbency, holding observable talent and ability constant.

Pretty boring stuff, right? Well, not when put in the hands of a creative writer. Here’s what Brooks had to say about the study:

Traits like being a good listener, a good team builder, an enthusiastic colleague, a great communicator do not seem to be very important when it comes to leading successful companies .In other words, warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as CEOs. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.

OK, so we’re now giving current and aspiring CEOs permission to be @#%holes!?

The characteristics the study actually correlated with CEO success were:

  • Can execute
  • Organizational skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Persistence
  • Efficiency
  • Analytic thoroughness
  • The ability to work long hours (energy)
  • Emotional stability
  • Conscientiousness
  • Provides clear direction
  • Humble

So does this sound like unlovable, boring, and anal-retentive? To me, it describes many of the competencies of a successful executive. Not all of them, but there’s sure nothing new or surprising on the list.

Also, things like the ability to execute, organizational skills, attention to detail, and the ability to work long hours — these are things that most executives are already good at. If they weren’t, they never would have made it to where they are. It’s the things that Brooks implies are not important, like being a good listener, a good communicator, empathy, and being able to get along with your peers, that they tend to struggle with.

That’s why companies are so willing to pay executive coaches thousands of dollars to teach executives these “soft” skills — because they’re in short supply, are hard to develop, and according to the Center for Creative Leadership, can be “derailers” (career killers) if not addressed.

It’s also important to note that the CEOs studied were candidates for buy-out companies — which usually mean a troubled company, where the skills of a turnaround specialist are needed. But turning around a troubled company is just one type of leadership challenge. There are also the challenges of starting something from scratch, taking over a successful, growing company, running your first multinational, moving from a line to staff position, and many others. Each of these leadership challenges require, and develop a different set of competencies.

I think we collectively need to spend less time studying what makes a successful CEO, or leader, and more time developing those skills. It’s no secret, we already know! It’s been studied, over and over. We’ve known for the last 20 years. Just take a credible research-based leadership competency model (DDI, CCL, PDI, Lominger, Linkage), adapt it to your organization, and focus your efforts on developing those skills.

So I swear, I’m going to try to stop, I really am. No more CEO studies.

And I’m going to stop eating chocolate cake, chicken wings, and Doritos and take off that 5 pounds I’ve been trying to lose.


Image credit, iStock