Treat ’em mean and you’ll go far

If you’ve got ambitions to be a CEO, then it’s apparently time to toughen up. According to a recent study from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, soft skills such as listening, flexibility and treating people with respect aren’t valued nearly as highly as more assertive attributes when it comes to hiring decisions. And once in post, CEOs who succeed tend to have qualities such as aggressiveness, efficiency, persistence, setting high standards and holding people accountable.

‘Hard skills predict performance,” confirms Steven Kaplan, a professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the Chicago business school who conducted the study, titled Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter, based on more than 300 assessments of CEO candidates.

To the future colleagues of any MBA students aiming to develop their management style, this prescription could sound rather terrifying: what if this uncompromising style goes against your personal values, not to mention your individual abilities, which may tend far more towards the communicative, consensus-building, team-playing approach? Are you doomed to professional failure?

Take heart. This study was based on one particular sector — private equity firms funded by venture capitalists and buyout investors — in the United States, and its authors concede their results ‘may not extrapolate well to CEO candidates in different situations”.

Secondly, there are alternative approaches to leadership being taught at business schools in the United Kingdom — and in the US, for that matter — which don’t hold much truck with the treat-’em-mean method.


Murray Steele, senior lecturer in strategic management at Cranfield Business School in southern England, says: ‘Effective leadership means taking an approach that is appropriate to the situation. So ‘shoot from the hip’ people might struggle in a business development situation. It just can’t be done on a one-size-fits-all basis.”

Meanwhile, Srikumar Rao, visiting professor at the London Business School (LBS), suggests taking some steps backwards to gain perspective on the knotty problem of how to do leadership successfully.

His course, he says, is about people choosing to change, and in so doing achieving business and personal results they had not dreamed possible. And this change requires constant thoughtful effort about how you as a leader can best serve the current and long-term interests of the people who work with you, rather than your mission being to manipulate a workforce to produce profit. Do the former, says Rao, and, quite simply, the results will come. It’s all about humility. —

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