The role of the CEO has always been demanding. But with changing times, it has only become tougher, says this piece in The Economist, which delves into academic research on the qualities that organisations should look for when hiring a CEO. The article shows that the diverse set of qualities required make such an ‘ideal CEO’ anything but normal.
“Celebrity bosses used to have nicknames that made a virtue of short fuses and brutality. “Chainsaw Al” and “Neutron Jack” sounded more like wrestlers than men in suits. That kind of moniker would jar today. Inclusivity and empathy are what matter: think “Listening Tim” and “Simpatico Satya”. But just because chief executives seem more normal does not mean that they actually are. The demands of the job require an ever-stranger set of characteristics.
…A recent study by Steve Kaplan of the University of Chicago and Morten Sorensen of the Tuck School of Business looks at assessments conducted by ghsmart, a consulting firm, of more than 2,600 candidates for different leadership positions. Candidates for ceo jobs emerge as a recognisable type. Across a range of characteristics they have more extreme ratings on average: they shine in what the academics term “general ability”.
They also differ from other executives in the particulars. Where aspiring chief financial officers are more analytical and focus on the detail, would-be ceos score higher on charisma, on getting things done and on strategic thinking.
…Yet firms today are after more than a type-a personality. Mr Kaplan and Mr Sorensen note that ceo candidates with better interpersonal skills are more likely to be hired. Another new piece of research, from academics at Imperial College London, Cornell University and Harvard University, analyses the lengthy job descriptions that companies draw up when they work with headhunters to recruit a new leader. Cognitive skills, operational nous and financial knowledge are prerequisites for success. But over the past two decades these descriptions have placed more and more emphasis on social skills—the ability of bosses to co-ordinate and communicate with multiple people.
Why are these softer skills prized? The answer, according to Stephen Hansen of Imperial College, lies partly in the rise of knowledge workers. Firms increasingly depend on developers, data scientists and it managers who are used to operating independently. Chief executives are not going to tell these kinds of workers what to do; their job is to make sure that people understand the firm’s goals and toil together effectively. Sure enough, the paper shows that demand for these skills goes up in larger and more information-intensive firms. Social skills matter more when bosses need to persuade as much as instruct.
The wider environment also rewards softer skills. Polling by Edelman, a public-relations firm, suggests that majorities of customers and employees make choices on what to buy and where to work based on their beliefs. Chief executives must mollify politicians, respond to activists and dampen social-media firestorms. It helps if the boss comes across as a relatable member of society, not a volcano-dwelling villain.”

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