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A people apart: Are CEOs different to others?

 

New research by Steven Kaplan and Morten Sorensen has aimed to answer whether business leaders, and in particular CEOs, actually differ from others in terms of their basic characteristics. Using a data set of over 2,600 executive assessments, the pair studied thirty characteristics of job candidates for top executive positions – including CEO, CFO and COO - assessed by means of a four-hour structured interview.

 

The authors found that CEO candidates tended to score higher on all four primary characteristics – general ability, execution skills, charisma, and strategic skills. CFO candidates, by contrast, tended to score lower on all four. The data also showed that candidate for public companies and larger firms tended to score higher than others from smaller and privately-held companies.

 

Interestingly, the research results also found that scores on the four factors could also be used as a predictor of future career trajectories. In particular, non-CEO candidates who scored higher on the four factors were found to be more likely to become CEOs in the future – a strong suggestion that the assessments applied to measure talent are valid.

 

The research also raised the suggestion that the interpersonal capacities of CEO candidates are often overestimated during the final decision, with hired CEO candidates actually scoring higher on interpersonal skills but lower on critical execution skills than interviewed candidates. This is suggestive of the idea that initial interview impressions and a candidate’s charisma during selection can often make as much of an impact as their actual leadership ability.

 

The results were also interesting in relation to the gender divide, with limited differences in the four factors between men and women. Perhaps less encouragingly, however, women scoring highly were ultimately found to become CEOs and COOs less often than men, when the factors were held constant.

 

Aspiring CEOs

 

The authors’ conclusion suggest that the results offer some guidance to aspiring CEOs, in as much as there are areas – execution, charisma, and strategic factors – that are possessed of candidates who are more likely to become CEOs eventually. While this is, obviously, not a magic formula for executive success, it seems a sensible possible place to begin when individuals are considering their own development areas for future growth.
 
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