Traits of successful executives - 4

P = MK² and the ambitious Executive

The library of information analysing the characteristics of successful Executives and CEOs is formidable but there are common themes that may be identified in much of the literature.

A recent report from a large, global head-hunter entitled Unleashing “ridiculous” ambition, which looked at characteristics of “high performers” noted that they are “fuelled by an intense desire to succeed”, or “ambition”. Amongst a variety of character traits identified, the correlation between high reward and high ambition and vice versa comes across strongly in the report.

A summary paragraph states, perhaps somewhat sententiously, that “Ultimately there’s no substitute for high levels of ambition — either on a personal or organizational level. The key is to align one’s deepest ambition (or an employee’s deepest ambition) with a pathway for attaining the Grand Prize. Creating this alignment can unleash that ridiculous ambition and ignite tremendous effort and achievement to change the world”

“The Grand Prize”!

International research from another global recruitment organisation on women aiming at the top, reported that money was the number one motivator for 57% of those canvassed. Is money the “Grand Prize”?

The answer is possibly both yes and no.

Much analysis of CEOs and the like, identifies common traits associated with the Myers-Briggs ENTJ personality type – the Commander – the personality type said to be the most likely indicator of someone who is likely to become a CEO. The generally identified motivators for the ENTJ include:

  • The desire to achieve
  • The desire to build something and
  • The desire for power.

And this is where P = MK² comes in

With apologies to Einstein and his elegant equation explaining that energy and mass are equivalent, P = MK² suggests that Power (P) and Money (M) are equivalents in terms of desired outcomes for highly ambitious people. It takes little imagination to observe the truth of this in business and public life. Wealth creates power and the access to power: refer to the Davos WEF attendance list and US Presidential elections for further clarification!

It is equally obvious that power even without high direct reward, is an enabler to significant financial advancement: see career paths of leading politicians, not just in Russia, and Civil Servants for examples.

K in this equation is a variable determined by the facility in a system for wealth to acquire power, K>1, or inversely, to enable wealth acquisition through the use of power, K<1. Just contrast the political situation of Russia and the USA.

Other attributes of the ambitious candidate

Another recent report suggests that common attributes across successful CEOs include:

  • Strategic yet tactical
  • Tough yet emotionally sensitive
  • Decisive yet inclusive

To which could realistically be added, relentlessly ambitious, which could be manifest in either power or money and might well be seen as conflicting with, and necessarily being predominant over, some elements of the previously described attributes. It’s nice to be nice, but it’s success to be powerful.

“21% of Executives had clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits”

An interesting indication of the attributes of some Executives is revealed in a study carried out in the USA in late 2016, which, and I quote, “found 21% per cent had clinically significant levels of psychopathic traits”. The rate of psychopathy in the general population is about one in a hundred. There is no comment on what proportion of the group showed strong, similar traits, although not to a clinically significant level.

Nathan Brooks, the forensic psychologist who conducted the study, said the findings suggested that businesses should improve their recruitment screening. “For psychopaths, it [corporate success] is a game and they don’t mind if they violate morals. It is about getting where they want in the company and having dominance over others.”

Keeping in mind that some of the key signs of such a disorder include a willingness to exploit others, lack of guilt or remorse for own actions, refusal to take responsibility for bad outcomes (blame someone else), whilst taking credit for success and refusal to let anyone stand in their way, perhaps we need to be more aware of personality traits as well as skills.

This is not necessarily an exclusion mechanism: we need to be realistic and recognise that, in some circumstances, a potential CEO with relatively high levels of psychopathic traits might be just what is required to achieve success.

At Horton International UK, most of our client relationships are long standing. This is due, in part, to the fact that we devote considerable time and effort with our clients to understand and agree exactly which character traits are essential, or at least most necessary, in the given situation and what the implications of recruiting such a personality are likely to be in terms of management challenge.

This is also a reason why, quite often, we are asked to recruit on a “term contract” basis. Someone who is required to address a critical business situation in a limited timescale, needs to have some highly driven, perhaps even ruthless, tendencies: they may well not be the person to then take the re-structured organisation to the next phase.

Horton International UK is a partner in Horton Group International with offices in over 30 countries worldwide.