Criteria for Choosing Executives

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2006

In the aftermath of the recent defection of Alan Mulally from Boeing to run the Ford Motor Company, I had several discussions with executives about the rationale behind the choice (his reasons and Ford’s). It seems appropriate, therefore, to review the current best thinking on the criteria used by boards or senior executives in choosing C-level executives (CEO, CFO, Chief Marketing Officers, etc.). Senior executives are curious about the criteria for three reasons: 1. To help them select individuals for C-level positions. 2. To help them select and groom high-potential executives for succession planning. 3. To help them develop themselves… to identify developmental needs so that they can fully round themselves out.

As I reviewed the literature on the subject, reviewed what boards and execs have told me and refer to my own experiences helping boards and execs assess and pick executives, I keep coming back to the seminal work of Harry Levinson, Ph.D., of Harvard and a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review. Who couldn’t admire the work of someone who wrote a book titled: “The Great Jackass Fallacy,” (Harvard University Press, 1973)? I’ve had the privilege of attending a couple of Harry’s seminars and to have him review and critique a white paper I wrote on working with narcissistic executives.

In this briefing I’ll summarize his key criteria. You can delve into more detail by reading his Harvard Biz Review article, "Criteria for Choosing Chief Executives," available through their website. Also, if you want to read “How Psychologists Help Predict Executives Success,” please refer to the American Psychological Association’s “Monitor on Psychology” article where I am interviewed on the subject (accessed through my website below).

Harry offered several caveats to his criteria: “It’s not statistically validated therefore the criteria should be used “qualitatively, not as an arithmetic index.” In addition he stated:

“A good executive is multifaceted like a diamond. The larger the number of facets, the more brilliantly it shines. Some facets are larger, some smaller. And not all diamonds have the same number. But all facets are part of a whole diamond, which ultimately focuses the light passing through the facets to a single integrating point. Further, few diamonds are without flaws.

Some aspects of behavior will be more significant for certain functions than for others. Sometimes these behavioral aspects will form a cluster. An aggressive, very controlling person who would fit one situation in an organization might be inappropriate in another. It is therefore more useful to think of these dimensions not as individual measures or sums, but as configuration patterns or profiles. The appropriate question is, ‘What profile of dimensions best fits the profile of behavior required for the job description that I have drawn up?’

People are always more complicated than the rubrics we use to describe them. Behavior is too elusive for fixed categories. All description therefore is approximation. A classification is a guide; pointing to certain features, it does not cover the whole territory. It is also static, and cannot describe a stream of actions in context. Furthermore, some of these dimensions overlap. The overlapping enables us to view subtleties just as turning the diamond lets us see another facet, though both lead to the same center.”

The list of criteria follows: They are grouped under three headings: Thinking, Feelings and Interrelationships, and Outward Behavior Characteristics.

Thinking

1. Capacity to abstract, to conceptualize, to organize, and to integrate different data into a coherent frame of reference.
2. Tolerance for ambiguity, can stand confusion until things become clear.
3. Intelligence, has the capacity not only to abstract, but also to be practical.
4. Judgment, knows when to act.

Feelings and Interrelationships:

5. Authority, has the feeling that he or she belongs in boss’s role.
6. Activity, takes a vigorous orientation to problems and needs of the organization.
7. Achievement, oriented toward organization’s success rather than personal aggrandizement.
8. Sensitivity, able to perceive subtleties of other’s feelings.
9. Involvement, sees oneself as a participating member of an organization.
10. Maturity, has good relationships with authority figures.
11. Interdependence, accepts appropriate dependency needs of others as well as of him or herself.
12. Articulateness, makes a good impression.
13. Stamina, has physical as well as mental energy.
14. Adaptability, manages stress well.
15. Sense of humor, doesn’t takes self too seriously.

Outward Behavior Characteristics:

16. Vision, is clear about progression of his or her own life and career, as well as where the organization should go.
17. Perseverance, able to stick to a task and see it through regardless of the difficulties encountered.
18. Personal organization, has good sense of time.
19. Integrity, has a well established value system, which has been tested in various ways in the past.
20. Social responsibility, appreciates the need to assume leadership with respect to that responsibility.

As stated earlier, no one executive maps out exactly against the criteria but good executives embody most of these traits. I find it very interesting that Jim Collins’ research for the book Good to Great came up with the “level 5” leader concept that dovetails pretty nicely with Dr. Levinson’s criteria. Good thinking stands the test of time.