The Most Important Personality Traits for CEOs

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Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

If you’ve ever waded into the business section of a Barnes & Noble or gotten “thinkfluenced” by any number of LinkedIn influencers, you may have become aware of the fact that management literature is long on opinions and short on data. A voice in the wilderness of thought leadership is University of Chicago Booth School of Business entrepreneurship professor Steven N. Kaplan, who has procured data sets about executives and their personalities of the kind that make social scientists swoon. Cases in point: 316 CEO candidates applying to jobs at 224 companies in a 2012 study or over 2,600 would-be execs assessed for 30 personality characteristics in a 2016 paper. (When companies are looking for a new CEO, they offer hire-assessment companies like ghSMART to figure out what makes candidates tick, thereby producing some fine-grained data if you can get your hands on it.) There are lots of consistency with the people who become CEOs, Kaplan says: They’re more talented than the rest, they’re great at getting things done, they’re charismatic, and they tend to be smart with creativity and strategy. That increases the likelihood that you’ll get considered, he says, and agreeableness — or how friendly and personal you are — increased your chance of getting the gig. But what leads to company performance, he says, is execution, followed by creative and strategic ability.

“It’s not saying that you should hire a jerk, but that you hire someone who has a sense of urgency,” Kaplan tells Science of Us. “In many cases, they ruffle some feathers, but in a CEO, you probably want that. You want a Jeff Bezos or a Steve Jobs rather than the opposite.” Being execution-oriented, in Kaplan’s model, is similar to the Big 5 trait of conscientiousness, but slightly different. Execution is about being efficient, persistent, proactive, aggressive, hiring high-performers, and firing underperformers, which is close to conscientiousness — but conscientiousness is more concerned with attention to detail, being organized, and carrying out what you construe to be duty. In his model, execution is on the opposite side of agreeableness, and the being open to criticism and quality listening and people pleasing that comprise that trait.

Photo: Courtesy of Steve N. Kaplan

There’s a unity here with other management research: Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile has found that more than compensation, recognition, or support from their colleagues, the No. 1 thing that makes people excited about the work that they do is a sense of progress. A CEO that’s vigilant about execution will yield a culture that yields lots of progress, all of which leads to success for a company. “If you are working for a company and the CEO and management are very nice, they care about you, but nothing happens, it is incredibly frustrating,” Kaplan says. “And who gets frustrated first? The best people. The doers. And do they do? They leave. And what are you left with? The non-doers. I would rather take a rough person who executes than a smooth-edged person who doesn’t, because if you don’t progress, you don’t have a company. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Jack Welch. You look for the opposite, the smooth-edged person who’s been successful, that’s harder to find.”

Fittingly enough, Kaplan says that one of the most guru-ific of management gurus hits these nails on their heads: Peter Drucker. His slim and potent The Effective Executive, first published in 1967, is built around the mantra of “get the right things done.” While Drucker didn’t use data, the insights he put together from conversations with the execs of his time resonates with Kaplan’s empirical findings. It works for those of us outside the C-suite, too: Pick the right projects, and finish them.