Elena Lytkina Botelho discusses the traits that define successful CEOs.
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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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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.
[email protected]: 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