CEO Genome Project: What Constitutes a High-Performing CEO Part 1

There is such a dearth of research about CEOs that I was excited to find out about ghSMART’s CEO Genome project. They have analyzed a decade’s worth of data from interviews and assessments of more than 2,000 CEOs and 17,000 C-suite executives. From this they have identified four behaviors that high-performing CEOs exhibit:

– Decide with Conviction and Speed

– Practice Relentless Reliability

– Are Relationship Masters

– Are Proactive in Adapting to Changing Circumstances

CEO Genome

Book detailing the results of The CEO Genome project available March 6

I interviewed ghSMART principals Kim Powell and Dina Wang to find out more about their research, which will be detailed in the forthcoming book “The CEO Next Door.”

Joel: What is The CEO Genome Project? How did the idea start?

Kim: First of all Joel, I have to say that your book has been on my bookshelf for quite a while {The CEO Tightrope}. When we first decided to turn our data set of research into a Harvard Business Review article and then a book that is coming out in March, I went out and tried to find all the best books I possibly could on CEOs. So thank you for writing that! You jumped into the seat at a young age relative to what we see as the average age in our data set. We saw a number of parallels between your CEO experience and our research.

To get back to your question, we do a significant amount of coaching, advising, and selection of CEOs. Over the last 10 to 15 years, we have built up an enormous and rich data set in a structured way. So we started on this journey to see what we could glean and learn from a research perspective out of the data we’ve collected as a consulting firm.

We started with a couple of questions: What really gets people hired as a CEO? What does it take to be a high-performing CEO once you’re there? We worked with roughly a dozen statisticians, psychologists, economists, and data scientists to find different ways to glean insights from this research. We discovered that there are some meaningful, statistically significant insights on what gets CEOs hired and what makes them high performing – and they are not always the same criteria. So we figured we’d better start talking about it!

Joel: Any concern about giving away the crown jewels?

Kim: Not at all. Given the level of granularity and specificity that we go into on the background and careers of leaders we work with, it would be difficult to ‘game the system’ in our assessment work. We are pleased that executives want to know how they compare to our data set. More than 9,000 individuals have taken the diagnostic on our web site. It seems to be getting traction and is useful to people.

Dina: Our mission is to help leaders amplify their positive impact on the world. We believe that great leaders really do elevate the quality of teams, individuals, and society overall. When we think about what people perceive a CEO to be like, there are perhaps lofty perceptions based on media and the bios of industry titans. What we found is that so many of them didn’t even think about being a CEO until they felt a calling or mission or need, and then they stepped into that breach. Part of this is to demystify and democratize what it takes to be a great CEO. We want to help people realize earlier in their careers that they too can become a CEO at some point.

Joel: When writing my book, I was shocked that I couldn’t find much accepted thought around the CEO role. I expected Harvard to have its framework and Stanford to have its framework and so on. Have you confirmed that?

Kim: The answer is that I agree there’s not a systematic one-size-fits-all approach to the CEO job. When we work with boards on CEO succession, we are crafting a custom scorecard for that specific future CEO role, which can vary dramatically depending on the company or situation. That’s why there aren’t paint-by-numbers approaches that describe the CEO role. The CEO is there to achieve a set of specific objectives based on the context, environment, timing, and needs and goals of the shareholders, board, investors, employees, etc.

Stepping back from that though, the CEO Genome research shows there are common behaviors exhibited by high-performing CEOs, which we highlight in the HBR article. Interestingly, the mix and weighting of those four behaviors is likely to differ based on the context. The mandate for a CEO of a small growth tech company is going to be quite different than a private label food manufacturer in a staid, more slowly changing industry. The tech CEO who doesn’t have antennas out in the market and close contact with customers in order to proactively adapt is less likely to be successful. So while I’d love to say we have a paint-by-numbers approach, we don’t apply it that way.

Joel: What were the data points that surprised you from the CEO Genome research?

Kim: There were three. First, we found that what gets you hired is not necessarily what drives high performance. The behaviors we saw in high-performing CEOs did not overlap much with what gets you hired. For example, data shows that being likeable is important in getting hired. We did not find a relationship between this and being a high-performing CEO. There are lessons here for boards and others in how they interview and select CEOs. Another example is that we were surprised to see something as presumably mundane as reliability show up as the only behavior important for both getting hired and being high-performing.

The second piece that was surprising is that the behaviors that really matter for high-performing CEOs are buildable and not intrinsic. The stereotype is that CEOs are 6’4” males who look a certain way, have a certain carriage, have an Ivy League degree and an MBA with amazing intelligence, etc. The reality is that the behaviors related to performance are things you can practice. They are muscles you can strengthen over time.

The third one relates to fallibility. There is a myth of perfection out there, but this is not what we saw in our data. Most CEOs are making mistakes and have had blow-ups in their careers – often significant ones. They might have been kicked out of a role or two. These failures did not derail their ability to rise up and lead an organization and lead it well. So, while it is surprising vis a vis what you might read in the press, it is not to us based on our experience. The only perfect CEO I know is one I’ve not met yet. All CEOs have aspects they need to build and areas they need to strengthen.

The story is that these are normal human beings. If we take the CEO role off the pedestal a bit, hopefully more individuals will see that they have the potential. The reality is we spend a lot of time at work. We have more than two million CEOs in the U.S. leading reasonably-sized organizations. If we can get more great leaders into these roles, it will positively impact the economic engine of the country and the world.

Dina: I always find the data around decisiveness interesting. We found that it’s not so much about making great decisions every single time and being perfect. Rather, it’s about the ability to be decisive and then adapt later if it turns out you need to tweak that decision. Making good decisions and being decisive are related but are ultimately two different things. We’ve found that some executives with the highest IQs were the ones who often struggled the most with decisiveness. They are looking at almost too much complexity and end up bottlenecking organizations. When we share this with people it often comes as a surprise. Making a decision is preferable to not making one because you can’t come up with the perfect answer. This is the trade-off you need to make.

Joel: The first thing I teach CEOs is to make a damn decision! It’s by far the most important lesson for CEOs, because our accuracy is not that good. If you know you’re likely to make a mistake, the faster you make it and correct it, the better off you are. The smart ones are the worst, because they think they’ll figure it out eventually. Meanwhile, everyone else is sitting around twiddling their thumbs. Once a CEO is on board, did you discover any common mistakes they make?

Dina: One of the things a lot of first-time CEOs are most anxious about and spend most of their time on is board management. This is the first time they are really on the hook to be that interface between the company and board. This takes up a lot of their energy and thought. What they deprioritize and under-invest in is their team. We found that the single most common mistake is not getting the right team in place quickly enough. About 75 percent of the roughly one hundred CEOs we interviewed in our research said that’s the most common mistake first-time CEOs make.

Joel: The most frustrating thing is every time you step into the CEO chair, you build a new team. It takes about 18 months every time to build the team and get everyone on the same page. A CEO may have two or three years at most before someone expects results. If you don’t start building your team on day one, you are building someone else’s team. 

Kim: That’s a good one! I may borrow that!

Look for Part 2 of our interview next week.



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