#MBOY 2019: 7 myths about CEOs we learned from research

27 February 2019 -


Stereotypical leadership traits have been challenged in this CMI Management Book of the Year

CMI Insights

Aspiring leaders take note: The CEO Next Door has been named winner of the Practical Manager category in the CMI Management Book of the Year contest – and it promises to dispel common myths about what it takes to make it to the top.

Featuring pioneering research from more than 2,600 leaders, the book offers advice on how to overcome hidden barriers to career progression. The judges described it as a ‘thoroughly readable book that provides an in-depth assessment of the practical skills that future CEOs will require.’ In the words of the authors – Elena Botelho and Kim Powell – here’s what you need to know:


1.Only Ivy Leaguers need apply

In fact, only seven per cent of the CEOs we have analysed graduated from an Ivy League college. Eight per cent of CEOs in our sample did not even complete college or took unusually long to graduate. Ivy League graduates are more prevalent among the ranks of Fortune 500 CEOs, but outside of that small set of companies, we see a much broader range of educational backgrounds and pedigrees.

2. CEOs were destined for greatness from a young age

Over 70% of the CEOs we interviewed didn’t set out to become CEOs early in life. Only when they came within reach of the C-Suite – typically after 15-plus years of experience – did they start to feel that maybe they could achieve and thrive in the role.

3. CEOs are egotistical superheroes

We were intrigued to uncover that CEOs who saw ‘independence’ as their defining character trait were twice as likely to underperform compared to other CEOs. The weakest CEO candidates used ‘I’ at a much higher rate than ‘we’ compared to the rest of the CEO candidates. For many successful CEOs, this team orientation has its roots in early organised athletics and the mentoring of others.

4. Successful CEOs have a larger-than-life personality with exceptional charisma and confidence

Wildly charismatic ‘masters of the universe’ may prowl unchallenged in the boardrooms shown in Hollywood films, but, in real boardrooms results speak louder than charisma. Over a third of CEOs in our study actually describe themselves as ‘introverted’. And self-described introverts in our sample were even slightly more likely to exceed boards’ expectations. When looking at CEOs who met expectations, we found no statistically significant difference between introverts and extroverts. High confidence more than doubles a candidate’s chances of being chosen as CEO but provides no advantage in performance on the job.

5. To become a CEO you need a flawless resume

The reality: 45% of CEO candidates had at least one major career blow-up that ended a job or was extremely costly to the business. Yet more than 78% of them ultimately won the top job. What set successful CEOs apart was not their lack of mistakes but how they handled mistakes and setbacks when they did occur. CEO candidates who talk about a blow-up as a failure are half as likely to deliver strong performance as a CEO.

6. Female CEOs succeed differently from men

Women may deploy leadership styles and exhibit attributes different from men’s, but statistically, gender has no impact on the probability of delivering strong results as a CEO. Successful CEOs exhibit the same four CEO Genome Behaviours whether male or female. Where it matters, female and male CEOs seem more similar than different. Unfortunately, the one big difference remains: Depending on the year, only about four to six per cent of the largest companies are led by female CEOs.

7. Great CEOs excel in any situation

A common misconception is that a great CEO is capable of handling any situation. Actually, we find that great CEOs are very thoughtful about identifying roles and context where they can be successful. They have the self-discipline to turn down the wrong job even when it comes with a CEO title. Many CEOs who are great at turning around a struggling company may struggle in a high-growth context and vice versa.

This is an edited extract from The CEO Next Door by Elena Botelho and Kim Powell, published by Virgin Books. The book’s authors are partners at leadership advisory firm ghSMART. The book draws on the firm’s dataset of CEOs, which is the largest in the world – in-depth analysis of 2,600 leaders, drawn from a database of 17,000 CEOs, as well as 13,000 hours of interviews.

This book is the winner of the Practical Manager category in CMI Management Book of the Year 2019.

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