Research from leadership consulting firm Personnel Decisions International (PDI) provides insight into just how different those who make it to the very top are from other leaders.
PDI compared a sample of 148 CEOs who participated in PDI assessments to a much larger sample of 9,226 senior executives and first-level leaders who were also assessed by PDI.
During the assessment, leaders completed the Global Personality Inventory (GPI) and the Leadership Experiences Inventory (LEI). The GPI measures personality traits shown to be predictive of work performance while the LEI measures leadership experiences shown to have high developmental value.
The results, released March 11, 2008, found that CEOs differ from other executive leaders in cutting through complexity, maintaining high energy levels, having a desire to be in charge and possessing the ability to persuade others.
The PDI study also found that CEOs are less passive-aggressive and do less micro-managing than other leaders.
"Many of the best and brightest business leaders have a drive to get to the CEO level," said Stuart Crandell, Ph.D., vice president and practice leader at PDI, in a press release. "We wanted to examine what the select few who make it to the top possess that others lack."
CEO Personalities Match the Job
CEOs differed most strongly from other leaders on several key personality traits:
- CEOs reported a higher ability to understand complex, ambiguous information by analyzing and detecting systematic themes. They are better able to find patterns in data that may seem initially unsystematic, quickly cutting through extraneous information to find trends and themes.
- CEOs reported higher energy levels, showing a preference for being highly active, needing to keep busy at all times, and being energized by challenge or change. CEOs also tend to need and like less down time.
- CEOs scored higher on their desire to be in charge, make decisions and take responsibility for leading others. Although all leaders show an elevated desire to be in charge when compared to people not in leadership positions, CEOs as a group scored much higher than other leaders.
- CEOs scored higher on their ability to be persuasive. They excel at gaining support and commitment from others. They are effective negotiators, able to get others to view things in a certain way.
"Today's CEOs have the weight of the world on their shoulders—keeping a business viable and successful in changing economic circumstances, meeting board and shareholder expectations and predicting consumer preferences that could change the direction of the company. This research gives us some insight into what kind of person can lead at this level," added Bob Muschewske, senior vice president and executive consultant at PDI, the company's top consultant for CEOs.
CEO Experience Differs
Although CEOs had more experience of all types, including managing operations, managing tough challenges, mentoring others, and serving in outside leadership roles, such as community or political organizations, two types of experience differentiated CEOs from other leaders:
- CEOs had significantly more experience than other leaders in successfully handling high-visibility, high-risk situations; those with a high risk of failure as well as the possibility of significant returns.
- CEOs had more experience growing the business, such as acquisitions and market expansions.
"You have to want to be at the top to be a successful CEO. This is not a role you want to accidentally fall into," Muschewske noted. "Top leaders are comfortable calling the shots, persuading others about the decisions they think are right and taking the responsibility that goes along with the power position."
Why CEO Traits Matter
CEOs tend to be well-suited for their leadership demands and challenges. For example, one key leadership challenge is the need to sift through ambiguous, complex, quickly changing information to find meaningful trends and themes.
"CEOs need to be able to digest a great deal of information quickly and determine which pieces of information indicate trends or themes that are important to the business. Finding vital information from seemingly unsystematic or extraneous information is an essential skill in running a business and predicting potential challenges," Muschewske added.
And with long hours, a global economy and travel demands, a CEO's work happens 24 hours a day. A preference for keeping busy allows CEOs to meet the specific time challenges of the top role in ways that invigorate and motivate them.
CEOs also tend to embrace the adage, "the buck stops here," and are willing to take responsibility for making tough decisions. At the same time, they gain support and commitment through inspiration and persuasion, not by issuing commands. CEOs balance leadership by an internal drive to lead others through honed persuasive skills that allow them to gain buy-in and bring differing parties together to accomplish results.
Type of Experience Matters
"Of course, possessing these traits alone does not guarantee one will make it to the CEO position. It also doesn't mean that if you lack these traits, you cannot fit the role," Crandell added.
PDI found that the type of experience—and not just years of experience—is critical.
"For those with their eye on the CEO job, experiences that are high risk with potential high return for the company and experiences that are highly visible throughout the organization tend to help an individual be prepared to take on the responsibilities of leading the company," Crandell said.
This means senior leaders aspiring for the top job need to set their sights on the types of opportunities which will give them the greatest exposure in the most challenging types of roles.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is manager of SHRM’s Business Leadership Focus Area.