This year has seen significant CEO changes, headlined in the popular media by Jeff Bezos’ stepping down at Amazon.
The rationale behind an organization’s choice of a particular C-level executive, and the decisions of the individual themselves, can veer away from best practice.
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 obviously want robust criteria when appointing to C-level positions to ensure they select:
- the most suitable individuals.
- high-potential executives who can be groomed for succession planning.
- appointees that ensure development of the senior executives themselves by addressing developmental needs that will fully round out the executive team.
Even reviewing the most recent literature, and via discussions with boards and execs, I keep coming back to the seminal work of the late Harry Levinson, Ph.D. After all, who couldn’t admire the work of someone who wrote a book titled: “The Great Jackass Fallacy”?
In this briefing I’ll summarize Levinson’s key criteria. You can delve into more detail by reading his Harvard Biz Review article, “Criteria for Choosing Chief Executives”. Also, if you would like to read more on “How Psychologists Help Predict Executives Success,” read an interview I gave to the American Psychological Association.
Harry Levinson grouped the criteria under three headings:
- Feelings and Interrelationships
- Outward Behavior Characteristics
- Capacity to abstract– can conceptualize, organize, and integrate different data into a coherent frame of reference.
- Tolerance for ambiguity– can stand confusion until things become clear.
- Intelligence– has the capacity not only to abstract, but also to be practical.
- Judgment– knows when to act.
Feelings and Interrelationships
- Authority– has the feeling that he or she belongs in boss’s role.
- Activity– takes a vigorous orientation to problems and needs of the organization.
- Achievement– is oriented toward organization’s success rather than personal aggrandizement.
- Sensitivity– can perceive subtleties of other’s feelings.
- Involvement– sees oneself as a participating member of an organization.
- Maturity– has good relationships with authority figures.
- Interdependence– accepts appropriate dependency needs of others as well as of him or herself.
- Articulateness– makes a good impression.
- Stamina– has physical as well as mental energy.
- Adaptability– manages stress well.
- Sense of humor– doesn’t takes self too seriously.
Outward Behavior Characteristics
- Vision– is clear about progression of his or her own life and career, as well as where the organization should go.
- Perseverance– can stick to a task and see it through regardless of the difficulties encountered.
- Personal organization– has good sense of time.
- Integrity– has a well-established value system, which has been tested in various ways in the past.
- Social responsibility– appreciates the need to assume leadership with respect to that responsibility.
Harry offered several caveats to his criteria. Particularly, because the criteria cannot be statistically validated, they 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.”
Be careful not to be dazzled though. At the senior level, most candidates are really good at selling themselves. It is important to get beyond salesmanship and figure out who they really are.
As Levinson also pointed out: “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.”
Therefore, a vital question is which of the criteria best exemplify the profile needed for the job description drawn up by the senior executives?
No rubric will cover the complex behavior of an individual and should be viewed as an approximation. A useful guide but not a clear map of an entire territory.
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.