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Top CEOs Are Not the People You Think They Are

May 4th, 2017
team and leaderWhat's your idea of a top performing CEO? Very likely it's someone who is highly self-confident, outgoing, charismatic graduate of the best schools who adroitly climbed the corporate ladder.

New research says that's mostly wrong. The 10 year study of thousands of top executives found, if not the exact opposite, close to it in many cases. The CEO Genome Project, as the study was called, found only 7% of the best performing CEOs had an Ivy League education. Over half were introverts. And confidence had no obvious bearing on how successful they were. And their climb up the ladder was full of mistakes, bobbles, and their own firing.

"The biggest aha, overall, is that some of the things that make CEOs attractive to the board (of directors) have no bearing on their performance," Elena Lytkina Botelho told The Washington Post. A co-founder of the project, she explained, "Like most human beings, (the directors) get seduced by charismatic, polished presenters. They simply do better in interviews."

The study, published in the Harvard Business Review, found four traits critical to the successful CEOs that were studied. While few excelled in all four, half were strong in more than one area. Here are the four behaviors the research suggests are most predictive of CEO success:
  1. Deciding with speed and conviction. High-performing CEOs stand out for being decisive, making decisions earlier, faster, and with  conviction.
  2. Engaging for impact. What this means, according to the study, is that successful CEOs recognize the priorities of all stakeholders, then get them aligned with building value. 
  3. Adapting proactively. The best CEOs adapt quickly and ahead of the curve to changing conditions. They tend to spend more time than other executives thinking and planning ahead.
  4. Delivering reliably. The researchers said, "The ability to reliably produce results was possibly the most powerful of the four essential CEO behaviors." Having a steady hand and achieving results consistent with the expectations they set was found to be more predictive of success than an executive who can achieve stellar results at times, but not consistently.

Image: renjith krishnan /

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