When Elena Lytkina Botelho, Kim Rosenkoetter Powell and fellow team members at ghSmart realized that the traits they discover in top-performing CEOs are different from the stereotypical image of a successful CEO, it is when they embarked on a 10-year journey, which they call the ‘CEO Genome Project’, to identify what makes a successful CEO. The stereotypical image of a top-performing CEO, in their own words, is a “charismatic six-foot-tall white man with a degree from a top university, who is a strategic visionary with a seemingly direct-to-the-top career path and the ability to make perfect decisions under pressure.”
However, their research has yielded starkly different behaviors common in top-performing CEOs. The four behaviours that their assessment of 17,000 C-suite executives (2,000 CEOs) and examination of a sample of 930 CEO candidates (representing companies of all sizes and 19 of 20 NIAC industry sectors) identified were – ’Deciding with speed and conviction’, ‘Engaging for impact’, ‘Adapting proactively’, ‘Delivering reliably’.
While they may appear as expected traits that CEOs must exhibit – these broad encompassing traits, when looked granularly, are more complex than they seem to be. The authors have discussed these behaviors in detail in their article featured in the May-June 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, so we are not going to delve into what these behaviors are. Instead, in this article, we are going to challenge the stereotypes of the typical successful CEO, and based on the CEO Genome Project, highlight the specific characteristics of successful CEOs which would ideally not be associated to a top-performing executive.
The 4 behaviours of highly successful CEOs - ’Deciding with speed and conviction’, ‘Engaging for impact’, ‘Adapting proactively’, ‘Delivering reliably’ - The CEO Genome Project
Breaking the myths about top CEOs
Myth #1: Extroverts are better CEOs
The researchers categorized the CEOs in three categories – met expectations, exceeded expectations, and underperformed. There were more introverts in the exceeded expectations category than extroverts. This doesn’t imply that being introvert at the job makes you a better CEO. This implies that introverts can control how they act while at the job and be better CEOs than individuals, who are extroverts by nature.
Myth #2: Successful CEOs are Ivy-league educated
Another interesting finding of the CEO Genome Project was that out of all the CEOs examined, only 7 percent of the high-performers actually had studied at an undergraduate Ivy League institution. Even more surprising was the finding that 8 percent of the high-performing CEOs did not graduate from college at all.
The percentage of successful CEOs who have not graduated from college is more than those who have Ivy League undergraduate education. 8 percent of non-graduates to 7 percent Ivy League graduates.
Myth #3: Successful CEOs have a safe and circuitous career path
It is easily assumed that to reach the pinnacle of becoming a CEO, one must have had a stellar career – a flawless track record devoid of mistakes. Well, that’s wrong. Highly successful CEOs, not only have made mistakes, as many as 45% of them have had a major “career blow-up” at least once – which ended up costing the business or even ended up getting them fired (could be a wrong acquisition, or adopting a completely wrong strategy). Other than the 45% who made job-threatening mistakes, virtually all the remaining CEO candidates have made material mistakes in the past.
Highly successful CEOs, not only have made mistakes, as many as 45% of them have had a major “career blow-up” at least once – which ended up costing the business or even ended up getting them fired
Myth #4: Successful CEOs make perfect decisions
While taking fast decisions is often attributed to great leaders, what is also an assumption is that these decisions taken are perfect – and that they are the hallmark of successful CEOs. The research has found that it is not about the accuracy of the decision, but the speed with which it is taken is what a common behavior in highly successful CEOs is. “High-performing CEOs do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; rather they stand out for being more decisive,” said the authors of the CEO Genome Project in Harvard Business Review. According to the decade-long research, indecisiveness costs a company more than waiting and making the right decision, albeit late. CEOs who have been fired with issues related to decision-making, two-thirds lost their jobs for being indecisive, and only one-third were ousted for making bad judgment calls.
“High-performing CEOs do not necessarily stand out for making great decisions all the time; rather they stand out for being more decisive.” - What sets successful CEOs apart, HBR
There are numerous studies that have attributed different attitudes to the success of leaders. While it is understood that leaders need to exhibit a certain amount of qualities in order to be successful at their jobs, what the CEO Genome Project does it highlight the behaviors that distinguish the great CEOs from the good ones. And this research can be used as an effective assessment criteria benchmark to shortlist and select people to lead the company. Yes, there are traits such as confidence and charisma which flatter to deceive – these attributes are instrumental in getting an individual hired, but are not distinct contributors to a CEOs and the organization’s success. The myths that this research has debunked can be a powerful guide for the board when hiring an individual to steer the organization’s ship and sail it to new and exciting vistas. Is the board ready to change its assessment criteria and judge the next batch of CEO candidates on the four behaviors? Because, if the research is credible, it is these behaviors which will make a CEO and an organization highly successful.