Anatomy of the Perfect CEO
High-profile CEOs are seemingly always in the news. They're either getting hired or fired, sued for sexual harassment or being grilled by Congress. Around the country, however, unassuming bosses are going about their daily jobs running companies and managing employees. Some run giant firms from corner offices, while others roll up their shirtsleeves and work alongside their small team of employees.
What makes these CEOs tick and how did they climb the ladder to the top in the first place? We’ve pieced together a theoretical sketch of the perfect CEO from a variety of studies.
What’s in a name? For CEOs quite a bit, especially if they are named Peter or Deborah. Research by professional networking website LinkedIn found that those names are the top names for CEOs. Additional research also found that for those workers who one day dream of becoming a CEO, having a simple and easy to pronounce name made them more likely to be favored for a promotion.
"Typically hypocrisms, the shorter form of a given name, are used in intimate situations as a nickname or a term of endearment," study researcher Frank Nuessel, a professor of classical and modern languages at the University of Louisville, said. "It’s possible that sales professionals in the United States and male CEOs around the world use these shortened versions of their name as a way to be more approachable and accessible to potential clients."
The shape of a person's face can also affect how they are regarded at work. Research conducted by Elaine Wong and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee came to this conclusion by studying the faces of 55 CEOs from Fortune 500 companies. Their findings were that leaders with faces that were wider relative to their length led more successful companies than executives with longer faces. One example of the research being proved true was wide-faced Herb Kelleher, the successful CEO of Southwest Airlines, and long-faced Dick Fuld, who presided over the now bankrupt Lehman Brothers.
"In our sample, the CEOs with the higher facial ratios actually achieved significantly greater firm financial performance than CEOs with the lower facial ratios," Wong said.
Height can be another big factor in a person's success, research has found. In particular, a person's height can help to improve both their income, by almost $1,000 a year, and their likelihood of getting a promotion. The magic height, research found, was six feet and above. In addition to earning more, taller people are seen as better leaders because of their size, the research found.
"Tall people tend to act like a leader from a very young age because other children relate to them like a slightly older peer," said Arianne Cohen, author of "The Tall Book" (Bloomsbury USA, June 2009). "In the workplace, when you're automatically acting as a leader, that's really important when it comes time for promotion."
A strong ego does not necessarily make a strong leader. Bosses should instead have a mild-mannered disposition because strong-willed bosses are just as likely to run a successful business as they are to run it into the ground. The one caveat to this research, published in the Journal of Management Studies, came when strong-willed bosses were met with a board that was equally strong-willed. This combination helped to check the power and ego of the CEO.
“A strong board provides a useful watchdog and a second set of valued opinions to the strategic direction of the company. This oversight by the board can help catch the deviant strategy that could lead to firm failure, before it is implemented by the CEO and the organization’s top management team,” the article said.
Another quality of the perfect CEO is something they have no control over. Research has found that a person's parents can be a large factor in the success of their children. This is because parents can initiate their children on trajectories that can play a large part in their future success, George Holden, of Southern Methodist University in Dallas who conducted the research, said.
"Some factors that also can influence trajectories include the family's culture, their income and family resources, and the quality of the parent-child relationship," Holden said. "What this model of parenting helps to point out is that effective parenting involves guiding children in such a way as to ensure that they are developing along positive trajectories."
Those trajectories can be an important part of not only the future success of a child, but of their leadership skills as well. In other words, the encouragement of parents can be a big factor in the path a child takes in a career.
It turns out it really is lonely at the top, at least for CEOs. Research conducted by management consulting firm RHR International found that half of the 83 CEOs polled said that being CEO brought with it feelings of isolation that were a hindrance to their performance. The research also found that CEOs had different expectations for the job than the ones they encountered when they were promoted.
"This is not uncommon," said Thomas Saporito, chairman and CEO at RHR International. "Stress, pressure and loneliness all combine to create a job unlike any other they have previously had."
For that reason, anyone looking to be the boss better be able to deal with the isolation that the title brings with it.
In addition to being mild mannered, bosses must also be humble, research suggests. This is because humble bosses were deemed to be more effective as leaders because their subordinates saw them as being more human. This not only helped to improve the workers' views of their boss, but it also led to a more successful and a better-performing organization.
"Growing and learning often involves failure and can be embarrassing," said Bradley Owens of the University of Buffalo who conducted the research with David Hekman of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "But leaders who can overcome their fears and broadcast their feelings as they work through the messy internal-growth process will be viewed more favorably by their followers. They also will legitimize their followers' own growth journeys and will have higher-performing organizations."
Taking humility one step further, the perfect CEO should also feel guilty when it is warranted. Researchers at Stanford University found that guilt-prone people were seen as having a sense of responsibility by others. This consequently made them appear to be better leaders in the eyes of others. The research also found that guilt was actually a better predictor of the success of a leader than extroversion, which had been considered a predictor of a leader's success.
"When thinking about what traits are important for leaders to possess, there tends to be a focus on what people do well," said Becky Schaumberg, a Stanford doctoral candidate in organizational behavior who conducted the research. "But we know that people make mistakes and mess up, and it’s important to look at how people respond to those mistakes because that’s a clue to who they are. The group was picking up on those behaviors.”