Myth vs. Reality: Four Behaviors That Define Successful Leaders

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Elena Lytkina Botelho discusses the traits that define successful CEOs.

What makes some CEOs successful while others crash and burn? The stereotypical view — often promoted in magazines and on television — is that these leaders are charismatic, armed with an Ivy League degree and larger than life. That impression is both superficial and wrong, according to Elena Lytkina Botelho and Kim Powell, consultants at ghSMART, a Chicago-based management consulting firm. After a 10-year study, Botelho, Powell, and their colleagues found that successful CEOs have four behavioral attributes that are often overlooked because they are not particularly glamorous. These CEOs make decisions quickly; they are relentlessly reliable; they excel at managing relationships; and they adapt swiftly to changing circumstances.

Botelho earlier worked for McKinsey and AIG-Brunswick after getting her MBA at Wharton. At ghSMART, she co-leads CEO Genome, a research project and client practice that supports CEOs and executives on their path to the corner office. The research explores paths and behaviors that lead to the top, as well as typical setbacks that CEOs encounter and ways to prevent them.

An edited version of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Before we talk about your research on the CEO Genome Project, how did you get interested in leadership?

Elena Lytkina Botelho: When I was 14 years old, I noticed that lots of people around me were coming to me for advice. That was my first epiphany — that what I love doing in my life is helping people to be successful at whatever they do. I had to send money back home [to Russia] so I became an accountant when I came to the U.S. I went to Wharton. With Wharton, you want to do something really worthy with your time, so I went to work for McKinsey. Then I realized that while I’ve changed, what I’m really passionate about hasn’t changed since I was 14.

My best moments at McKinsey were about sitting across from anybody — it didn’t matter if they were CEOs — feeling that in some way that conversation helped them be more successful. That brought me to ghSMART where we’re really blessed to have a unique job that I never knew existed until I joined the firm. All we do is help leaders be more successful. Then, as I went on that journey, it became clear that while leadership overall is a really big topic, there are a couple of big pivot points. If you can get those decisions right, a lot of things flow from that, which is how we got to the CEO Genome Project.

Knowledge@Wharton: So let’s discuss the CEO Genome Project. What are those couple of pivot points that you mentioned, and what was your purpose in doing what you did?

Botelho: As a firm, we’ve been helping CEOs and helping boards and investors select CEOs since 1995. We’ve always been behind the scenes helping our clients make that decision. What really shocked me was that the CEO that stares at you from the front pages of our well-respected publications and CEOs I get to see up close and personal are just two very different [people]. And coming from a family of mathematicians, whenever something is unsettling I figure we need to get some good data around this. That’s how the CEO Genome Project was born.

It was really a desire to say, well let’s look behind the scenes, let’s understand what drives performance. What do successful CEOs look like up close and personal? And let’s do that not using anecdotes or not over-relying on any kind of particular empirical experience, but really digging into the data and research.

Knowledge@Wharton: And what did the data show?

Botelho: The data was fascinating. We embarked on the research; we weren’t fishing for any particular hypothesis to prove or disprove it. We applied a multitude of analytical approaches. What we found in terms of what didn’t matter surprised us as much as what we found of what did matter. For example, [we found] that the stereotypical, larger-than-life, charismatic CEO who never makes mistakes and is probably the smartest person in the room and rides in and out on a white horse with a perfect, unblemished record only exists in urban legends. And I’ve since come to realize that the only perfect CEOs I know are the ones whom I don’t know.

Any CEO, no matter how illustrious, no matter how successful, when you look back in hindsight, has come into the role not prepared. That’s one thing we’ve learned: We’ve yet to find a board that feels that this individual is a slam dunk. It’s a tough decision, deciding who will get the role. So they look imperfect getting into the role; they look imperfect for much of the role; very few aspects of this big public stereotype prove to matter. If you look at the publicly-available bios of Fortune 500 CEOs, if you didn’t go to the right preschool, let alone the right university, you’re doomed to failure.

“The stereotypical, larger-than-life, charismatic CEO who never makes mistakes … only exists in urban legends.”

It’s interesting, because our data [showed a different picture]. We have the luxury of looking well beyond the Fortune 500. The companies in our dataset, it’s more than 2,000 CEOs and 18,000 executives. It includes folks from Fortune 100 companies to $100 million companies or a 100-person company. We found only 7% of the executives had an Ivy League college education. Eight percent of the executives didn’t graduate from college at all. In the final analysis, their educational pedigree didn’t really impact their performance.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why is that? What is your explanation?

Botelho: Our philosophy is it’s all about the fit to the role. Whether or not someone will succeed in a specific situation depends on the context. It depends on how well that person’s skillsets are matched to what the job requires, much more so than on this theoretical set of perfection competencies.

The other big overarching theme that stared us in the face when we dug into the data is that it’s much more about what you do and what your behaviors are, and the skills and abilities that you develop in your life as opposed to traits that you happen to be born with. Because to a large degree, as much as we would like to believe that great education is available to everyone, having an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school is as much a signal of access as it is a signal of lots of other things. What we’ve found is that it helps to have a headstart in some areas, but at the end of the day, what really matters is what you do with what you’re given.

Knowledge@Wharton: You identified four specific behaviors that the CEOs who are successful do differently than those who may seem successful on the surface but eventually are not. Can we talk about those four behavioral qualities and see how they make a difference?

Botelho: What surprised us is that we expected that CEOs just make better decisions. By the time they get to the top and when they get selected it must be that they just have this uncanny insight that the rest of us don’t share. What we were shocked to find out is that decisiveness does in fact relate to performance, but it’s actually more frequent that CEOs stand out for the speed of their decision making, not simply the quality.

You may have recently have seen [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos’s shareholder letter. It could be a primer on all the four CEO behaviors. On decision making, he specifically talks about the fact that decision making is quality times velocity. He talks about Day Two companies. [These are] companies that probably have been and still are very successful but ultimately not as dynamic, not moving forward, not shaping the industries where they are in. He talks about those Day Two companies as making high-quality decisions but too slowly.

And he sets his aspiration for Amazon to always remain a Day One company, as a company that makes good decisions and makes them very quickly. What we find is that as you look at executives even coming up through the ranks, you can see folks differentiate themselves on decisiveness at different stages in their career. CEOs stand out for being willing to make decisions.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think there are any exceptions to that?

Botelho: Yes. Look, if the results of the study were published to CEOs only, then the message probably would be — no. 1, think about which decisions shouldn’t even land on your desk. Very successful CEOs are very careful. A lot of them will tell you that in a given year they will make three to four big decisions. So the first question would be this: Make sure that you don’t have too many decisions because something has got to be wrong with your team if there are too many decisions that you feel that you are the only right person to make.

The second insight for CEOs only would be the right time to make a decision, and the right kind of thoroughness and thoughtfulness on a decision at hand, depending on the type of decision. Certainly, if you’re betting the company, you will be really thoughtful. This study is aimed at being helpful to a really broad audience regardless of their stage in their career. This is where what we really focused on was decisiveness, simply because when we look at what separates those who actually get into the CEO’s shoes and become successful from those who [don’t], it tends to be the speed that’s the [key] factor. So when you are in doubt, if you have a sense in your gut that you know the right way to go, that’s probably the right answer.

Now if you’re a CEO — CEOs do tend to be more decisive — maybe it is very prudent to be thoughtful and make sure that you’re getting different points of view.

Knowledge@Wharton: The second trait that you talked about was that they are relentlessly reliable. Why does that matter?

Botelho: Reliability caused all sorts of debate on our research team, mainly because all of these behaviors seem pretty obvious. Reliability was kind of annoyingly obvious. It was as plain as milk toast. We found ourselves resisting even putting it out there because it was so basic. Yet of the four behaviors, reliability is the only one that is statistically associated with greater likelihood of getting hired. Demonstrating reliability leads you to be more likely to get the job as well as to perform well in it.

Knowledge@Wharton: How can leaders learn to be more reliable?

Botelho: Great question, and I’ll share an anecdote if I may. Lots of folks found this really useful. On our website we have a self-assessment for these behaviors. We had 4,000 folks from all walks of life curious enough to see how they stack up against CEOs and against peer groups. So they took the assessment. Among those was one individual who is a founder and CEO of a major company, one of the most successful in his industry. He took the test and he called one of my partners who had been working with him and said, “This is great, and I’ve excelled in the following areas but it looks like I need to improve on my reliability. Let’s get working at it.”

“In the final analysis, their educational pedigree didn’t really impact their performance.”

That caused a really good conversation because clearly even somebody who had been tremendously successful, who is among the absolute best in his field, had a fundamental behavior that he felt he wanted to improve upon. When we think about reliability, it is really about three things: no. 1 is the mindset, no. 2, the people, no. 3, the processes and the cadence and the drumbeat of the company. The good news is that of these three things, there’s only one that the CEO has to carry in his or her own brain.

What we find with CEOs who are highly reliable is that they want to be counted on. They are not simply willing to take responsibility when they see things going off course or when they see opportunities in front of them. They almost have a desperate hunger to be counted on and pull things together. Interestingly, it shows up pretty early in life sometimes.

Let me give you an example. I was assessing a CEO candidate for a board and he shared a story from when he was 16 years old and living in California. His parents had left him on the farm in California alone when a fire broke out. What he did is he led the horses out of the barn, then he took care of the chickens and loaded them in the truck, and then he did a bunch of other things that were aimed to minimize damage. Then he got into the pickup truck, drove 100 miles, and called his parents.

When I think about myself in that situation, I am hoping, back at 16, I would have had the presence of mind to call 911 before my mom, but it would be a toss up. It’s just one of those examples of the mindset of accountability. … Think about the most reliable people in your life. They don’t need to be brilliant leaders. But we all know who they are. That has to come from the CEO because that sets the tone for the whole organization.

For those of us who are disorganized and don’t think of ourselves as terrific managers, there are a lot of other pieces of reliability that you don’t need to do yourself as a CEO. You’ve got to surround yourself with people who have complementary skillsets, and you’ve got to let them do their job. You have to let them build reliability into the company and be willing to be part of that reliability. Then the rest of it is about processes, routines and the cadences. A lot of reliable companies feel a little bit more like a marching band than the improvisation of talented musicians.

Here is another reliability hack that anybody can use. If you were interested in improving your reliability here is something simple. What we also found when we looked at the CEOs up close and personal, the CEOs that were regarded and viewed as highly reliable are masters at setting expectations. Reliability doesn’t start when you start executing. Reliability starts when you walk in and you understand what everybody expects of you, and you align your stakeholders towards expectations that are realistic given what the situation presents you with.

Knowledge@Wharton: That leads to a logical transition to the third attribute that you found, which is that people who are reliable also are great at managing relationships; in fact, you call them masters at relationships. How does that factor into the success of CEOs?

Botelho: Being a CEO or being a leader of any kind is a team sport, right? You’re only a leader if you can get others to follow and bring the whole business or the whole initiative that you are leading to success. What we found that was really interesting was how successful CEOs relate.

“Demonstrating reliability leads you to be more likely to get the job as well as to perform well in it.”

The best analogy I can offer is that of an orchestra conductor. Good orchestra conductors obviously understand the score. They understand the intention and they have a point of view and a vision for how they want to interpret the music. Second, they have a keen understanding of the musical instruments and the participants in the orchestra, both in terms of what their role is, and how to draw out a performance that brings it to life. Good conductors also know what motivates the musicians in the orchestra. They will know the first violinist’s cat died that day. … It’s a really big deal for her. They’re tuned into each individual who is sitting around and creating the music.

Then, all of that comes together — the conductor, his engagement with the instruments, his performance and that of his musicians, who often may be more talented. … It is all in the service of that vision, of producing a piece of music that nobody in that room individually could have produced on their own. That’s what we call relating for impact.

It’s easy to describe what it’s not. What it’s not is relating for likeability, meaning I’m here to be liked, I’m here to be beloved by the musicians or the audience. That’s much easier actually. It’s also not about hammering away and beating … the musicians until they perform their best piece of music. CEOs who are successful at engaging for impact always hold in mind the purpose of what they’re here for, and they tune in to their stakeholders to deliver that purpose.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do they manage that balance, though, between those two extremes that you just described?

Botelho: I think for some it comes more naturally than for others. I find that they do two things particularly well. One, again it’s back to clarity of purpose and clarity of intent. It doesn’t need to be purpose with a big P. There’s a lot of dialogue about the high-minded purpose. The purpose could be as simple as in this business relationship here’s what our intent is. But they’re really clear about what that is.

Secondly, they are voracious feedback consumers. So they’re constantly watching to see the feedback that the audience gives them, the feedback that they get from their musicians, and they are constantly evolving and responding.

One of the CEOs that we’ve worked with is Tom Monahan. Tom led a successful company called Corporate Executive Board, grew it to $1 billion and he sold it to Gartner. Tom had a great way to frame the job of a CEO. He said, “Look, I’ve got three groups of stakeholders — my shareholders, my customers, and my employees. If I were to fully satisfy any one of the three, we would be bankrupt. As a CEO, my job is to keep them all constructively dissatisfied in the name of making the enterprise successful so that the enterprise can deliver to them all.”

Knowledge@Wharton: What does he mean by “constructively dissatisfied?”

Botelho: I found that fascinating. He didn’t say my job is to satisfy all of them. He said my job is to keep them all constructively dissatisfied so I can bring the whole enterprise forward successfully, and then deliver for all of them. I think it’s really that he’s not thinking about how do I please my audience but how do I bring everybody forward, even if at times they’re not going to be happy with what it feels like day to day.

Knowledge@Wharton: The fourth attribute [is that] successful CEOs are fast learners; they adapt quickly to changing circumstances. Why and how is that important?

Botelho: If there is any behavior that is growing in its importance and is getting the most airtime in the boardroom these days, it’s adaptability. You write a lot about innovation. I don’t know a single board, company, or a single set of investors that aren’t talking about how the world is speeding up, how there is a greater degree of uncertainty in the world, and how important innovation is, in this environment of change and of constant surprises. You have to be able to position the business for success and remain vibrant and viable. Adaptability is on the rise as a key CEO behavior.

Knowledge@Wharton: You did this study over a long period of time, and I’m sure it was global in its character. Were there any cultural factors in the way in which these four behaviors played out?

Botelho: Yes. We would love to do additional exploration of that factor; the research is still developing. Fifteen percent of our dataset are CEOs of companies that are not U.S. companies. A greater percentage of the data are CEOs who are not U.S.-born CEOs. There’s certainly representation, and I think we have an opportunity to dig into it deeper and explore it further.

Knowledge@Wharton: The specific point that I was thinking about was if your data showed whether some cultures are more relationship-oriented and others are more contract-oriented. I see that conflict in leadership roles all the time. Some people will change a contract if it preserves a key relationship, whereas others will let a relationship go if it doesn’t stick to the contract. How did you navigate this divide?

Botelho: If I had a hypothesis, I would say that these behaviors hold across cultures but the way in which they are interpreted could be determined by culture. I’ll give you one example that’s very simple and close to home. In 1998, I was between my first and second year at Wharton. Half my internship was at the Boston Consulting Group in London and the other half was going to be in Russia working for a private equity fund.

“Adaptability is on the rise as a key CEO behavior.”

I was very conscious that when I went to Russia I shouldn’t be smiling too much because in Russia people smile for two reasons. They’re either flirting, or something is funny, or if not then you’re an idiot basically. In contrast, in the U.S. the social message you are conveying by smiling is just that, “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re enjoying our conversation and we’re trustworthy partners.” It’s part of the social lubricant, if you will. This is a very trivial example but just goes to your broader point around behavior and culture.

Also the value that a culture places on a behavior will be different. I think in our culture adaptability is the behavior that we really value. Many of us are first generation immigrants or have immigrant roots. It’s often adapt or die. But in more established countries, or in countries that have roots with a more established population, reliability might be that much more important. This is a fertile area for further exploration.

Knowledge@Wharton: You worked on the CEO Genome study for a decade or more. Of all of the leaders you encountered, did any one person stick in your mind as the top person? And if so, why?

Botelho: A lot of this research will feed into a book that we will have coming out in the spring of 2018, The CEO Next Door. The first part of the book is about these four CEO behaviors. We pushed ourselves to say, okay the data is nice but who really embodies that behavior? So for each individual behavior we have our masters or our black belts.

I’ve been very fortunate. I feel blessed to have had an opportunity to be around several CEOs I admire and who have been very successful. And I’ll tell you, none of them is equally good at all of these four behaviors. Each of them will be able to shine on probably a couple of them.

What we’re finding in the data is that having strength in two typically seems to be the sweet spot, and then having awareness around the others. It’s very easy to think when you look at these behaviors that some things seem on the face of it mutually exclusive, or contradictory to each other. If I’m really decisive and I’m really fast to move, how am I also relating for impact? If I’m really decisive, how am I also adaptable? Or if I’m really adaptable, how am I also reliable? I’m always curious about leaders who seem to combine behaviors that on the face of it seem to be hard to combine.

Let me talk about a CEO here in town. Madeline Bell has been leading CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia). If you talk to folks around Madeline, what you’ll hear is that she’s somebody who stands out for her ability to relate for impact, and build trust in a multitude of stakeholders. At the same time, she’s somebody who is very decisive. And obviously reliability is a core, fundamental organizational capability for CHOP, because they’re saving kids’ lives every day, and so reliability is really essential. I can tell you one simple thing you can do that will help in all four behaviors. Will that be useful?

Knowledge@Wharton: Of course.

Botelho: If you look at the underlying muscle building, and how you raise your game on all four, I think the most fertile area for that is mistakes. What are we talking about? We’re talking about who are the most successful CEOs, and what comes to mind is an Olympic list of accomplishments. The reality is the most successful CEOs who are really strong at these behaviors are fantastic at mining their mistakes for learnings for themselves and for the organization.

If I had to think about an underutilized business asset, it’s mistakes, and really digging into them and figuring out, well how do I become more reliable? Another point on reliability that’s interesting. Every organization that I know where reliability is a matter of life or death is obsessive about mistakes. There is a cult of actually finding these mistakes. Madeline at CHOP introduced a practice called ‘Great Catch’ as a way to celebrate people and encourage them and open the doors to the fact that a mistake is not an indictment of perfectionism. Excellent organizations often struggle with mistakes, because we expect ourselves to be so perfect. Madeline found a lighthearted but really profound way to say: Great catch, it’s the job of all of us to find mistakes. So I would encourage all of us to go on a personal ‘Great Catch’ program. If you do that, that is a route to improving your behavior on every one of the four traits.

Knowledge@Wharton: How would the principles that you have learned be applicable to leaders who are not CEOs?

Botelho: This is probably one thing that makes me most excited about our research. It’s exciting to dispel the myths about CEOs and help boards become better at picking the right CEOs. It’s exciting to see that it can actually change lives for the better no matter what you do, whether you happen to be a principal or you just want to have a good family.

What we found is that it’s never too early or too late to apply these behaviors. We have examples of struggles and examples of real victories at any stage in one’s career, whether you’re a really successful CEO or you’re just the kid graduating from high school or anything in between.

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