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What Do the Most Successful CEOs Have in Common?

The best leaders may be hiding in plain sight.
What Do the Most Successful CEOs Have in Common?
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What should boards take into account when hiring someone for the top spot in the company hierarchy?

The four researchers behind a 10-year study called the CEO Genome Project examined this question by exploring the traits that high-performing CEOs share. They summarized their findings in the May/June 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review.

One surprising finding was that while extroverts are often perceived as having leadership qualities, introverted CEOs tend to do better for a company’s bottom line. “Our analysis revealed that while boards often gravitate toward charismatic extroverts, introverts are slightly more likely to surpass the expectations of their boards and investors,” the researchers wrote.

A board is twice as likely to give a candidate with an extroverted, confident nature the top job, but the researchers found that this aspect of a leader’s personality doesn’t have any bearing on how well they will do the job.

Related: This List of the Highest-Paid CEOs May Surprise You

Additionally, those who are selected for chief executive roles don’t always have pristine records. Forty-five percent of CEO job candidates studied had “at least one major career blowup” in their past, but even if that mistake cost their former employer a great deal, 78 percent of those individuals were subsequently offered a CEO job.

Although it might seem like a no-brainer to hire someone with an Ivy League pedigree, the researchers found that seven percent of high-performing CEOs have an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school while eight percent never graduated from college.

Ultimately, the researchers found that there are four common behaviors that the most successful CEOs exhibit. The first is decisiveness -- a measure of how quickly, how consistently and with how much conviction the CEO makes decisions, regardless of the outcome of those decisions. “In our data, people who were described as ‘decisive’ were 12 times more likely to be high-performing CEOs,” the researchers wrote.

Related: Learn the Traits of Successful CEOs

The second quality is an understanding of stakeholders’ priorities and an ability to deliver results based on them. Of the top executives studied, those who engaged with their company’s stakeholders were 75 percent more likely to succeed in the CEO position.

The third quality of successful CEOs is an ability to think in the long term and adapt quickly to change. The researchers found that effective CEOs consider the long-term fortunes of the companies they lead 50 percent of the time, and those who are adept at quickly changing course are 6.7 times more likely to succeed

The last of the four behaviors is the ability to reliably deliver on promises. “CEO candidates who scored high on reliability were twice as likely to be picked for the role and 15 times more likely to succeed in it,” the researchers explained. “Boards and investors love a steady hand, and employees trust predictable leaders.”

Edition: May 2017

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