What Makes a Great CEO?

A recent study by Russell Reynolds Associates and Hogan Assessment systems wanted to discover what differentiated the best CEO’s from average ones. They wanted to examine stereotypes, like self-promoting, risk taking, and being extroverted and see if there really was a case for those attributes indicating a great CEO. In the end they found that what really correlates with a “better” CEO is the traits of intensity, the ability to prioritize and focus on substance, and the ability to identify and acknowledge what they don’t know.

They came to this conclusion by creating detailed psychometric profiles of 200 global CEOs by using 3 different questionnaires and surveys. These were used to measure interpersonal skills, emotional factors, personality, communication style, management style/behavior, influence style, and decision making style among other things. The results were then compared to non-CEOs in an existing database from Russell Reynolds Associates.

The analysis demonstrated that CEOs differ from other executives across a handful of personality attributes:

  1. An ability to embrace appropriate risks
  2. A bias towards acting and capitalizing on opportunities
  3. Drive and resilience
  4. Original thinking
  5. The ability to visualize the future
  6. Team building
  7. Being an active communicator
  8. The ability to catalyze others to action

As for the original stereotypes mentioned above, the study confirmed that CEOs are likely to be bigger risk takers than other executives, but not always more extroverted or self-promoting.

The study concludes that the “best in class CEOs” stand out in three main ways:

  1. They show a greater sense of purpose and mission, and demonstrate passion and urgency.
  2. They value substance and getting straight to the core of an issue.
  3. They have a greater focus on others, the organization, and outcomes/results than on themselves.

Though there is no single profile for the “best CEO,” the research performed was able to give a set of traits that distinguish CEOs from other seniors executives. The two companies recommend that when hiring a new leader an organization should assess a candidate for a few of the attributes listed above. Are they intense? Are they seen as impatient? Do they focus on and help others in their organization?


Read an article on this study from the Harvard Business Review here.

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