Research reveals insight into the characteristics of our top directors
Doctor Paul Dobson, a senior lecturer in organisational behaviour at Cass Business School, reckons his research dispels the idea that nice guys finish last. Along with colleagues Noelle Irvine and Adrienne Rosen, Dobson interviewed 60 high-ranking CEOs and chairmen, and 210 of their peers, to find out why some directors achieve enduring success and others fail.
What they discovered was that leadership traits so often hailed on reality television shows like The Apprentice are rarely seen at top levels. "The people who tend to get to the top and survive long-term tend not to be snakes," says Dobson. "The role model that tends to be out there is one of the macho manager, who gets to the top by stabbing people in the back. What we understand from those who are successful and those around them is that people do not act like that. They are, in fact, very nice, genuine people who are hugely talented in all respects, and that includes dealing with people."
Dobson says little research is carried out on the CEOs and chairmen of the world's largest organisations—"you don't normally get access to people of this seniority"—so the tools to evaluate directors at this level are scarce.
He says he hadn't expected such a coherent outcome, but was heartened by what he found. The best directors rely on a wide network (including family and friends) to bolster their own innate skills and they allow leaders to operate throughout their business—in short, their "soft" skills are top notch.
He says: "You can't sit at the top of an organisation and be some sort of conductor. You have to rely on networks that you build in your senior team and empower people to get on with it. Trust them to get the job done. Not once was anybody successful mentioned [by their peers] who was a bit of a shit. They were all very decisive, courageous, innovative and amazingly resilient—they could cope with pressures that would make us mortals wither."
He continues: "These people were wealthy. In some cases they were famous. And they certainly had power. But they still had passion for the business; a huge energy about them." He says the respondents retained their sense of ambition and were driven to make a success of the business.
He hopes the research will help boards to structure their observations when planning for CEO development and succession and to make a more objective assessment of people at the top level. But most of all he says: "It gives a more positive role model than you'd usually get. If people are presented with the wrong role models, then they start believing that that's the way to get on."
Traits for enduring CEO success
1) You cancel your holiday in Barbados because your business needs you
2) You never leave the field of battle you can face up to the huge mental pressure that threatens your family, career, intellect and institution
3) You will hire someone clever even if you think they might challenge your authority
4) You are articulate and persuasive enough to sell the business to shareholders, bankers and the media
5) You generate tremendous respect. People trust you to be completely honest even when you have to take ruthless action.
Some factors which identify risk of failure in CEOs
1) You point out what you've done rather than what your team have done
2) You fudge and hide, hoping that things will get better. You lack the drive to solve problems
3) You don't understand that you are paid to manage the bad times-anyone can manage the good times
4) You have an over-inflated idea of your own importance. You lack self-perception and believe your own publicity
5) You are too abrasive and rub people up the wrong way. Your one-to-one communication is OK, but you are too impatient and can upset others.
Based upon research by Dr Paul Dobson, Noelle Irvine, and Adrienne Rosen at Cass Business School, London.
Posted 4 October 2007 : Director.co.uk