What behaviors set the best CEOs apart? Elena Botelho, co-author of The CEO Next Door, and her team interviewed 18,000 leaders to find out. Discover the four behaviors of next-level CEOs, that introverts and extroverts are equally likely to succeed, and why you’re more adaptable than you think.
TweetsYou are more adaptable than you think – @elbotelho talks #CEONextDoor #podcast
Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.
With us today is Elena Botelho. She is the co-author with Kim Powell of the book, The CEO Next Door, based on a breakthrough study of over 2600 leaders. The four behaviors that transform ordinary people into world class leaders. Wouldn’t we all love to know what those behaviors are and exhibit them ourselves. So, we have Elena here to help us figure out how to do that and to tell us about her research on the book. I really loved reading the book. This came out of an article that I read, probably at least a year ago. I may have even quoted her research in one of my articles for HBR. But in any event, I’m very happy to have her on the Bregman Leadership Podcast. Welcome.
Elena: Thank you, Peter, it’s great to be with you.
Peter: So, tell us first about, let’s ground this book in the research. Tell us a little bit about the research that went into the book.
Elena: Yes, absolutely. Well, so I’m a partner of the firm called ghSMART. We’re a leadership advisory firm, and what that means is CEOs, boards, investors of the leading companies and private equity firms, call us when they wanna make sure number one, that they’re picking the right leaders. So, for over 20 years, our clients have relied on us to help them actually decide who gets to run the company, who is ready for that promotion. So that’s one situation. Or, help groom the next generation of leaders or help accelerate those leaders to their success.
And so from those 20 years of practice, we’ve got not just front row seats, but really behind the scenes, very intimate view on leaders. On over 18,000 leaders, actually. And so we worked for over a decade, first with the University of Chicago, then with SAS Institute, with NYU, with other academics and data miners, to say, “Okay, we’ve been really focused one client at a time. One company, one investment firm at a time. What are the patterns that show up when we look across these leaders?” And so, that’s really what the book is based on.
Peter: And so, in terms of the research itself, you looked at a data base. What did the data base, ground us a little bit more in what the data base was so that as we’re listening, we can kind of have a sense of where the data came from.
Elena: Yeah, so it’s actually, what’s really unique about the work is, let’s face it, right, lots of folks have studied CEOs. It’s a pretty sexy topic.
Elena: Most of the CEO research out there is based on typically public profiles of Fortune 500 CEOs. So that’s about 500 companies out of millions of companies, right? And if you think about kind of just jolly professionals who just aspire to be their best selves, a kind of Me, Inc. if you will, that’s a much, much wider set. So we thought, 500 is hardly representative so that’s one. Our sample set of 18,000 covers every industry, and it covers companies from Fortune 10 company down to 10 million dollar company or 10 person company. So, first of all, the breadth and therefore kind of the ability to really represent something that’s relevant, not just a small sample of a lead businesses, but really broadly applicable, is kind of a unique vantage point, so that’s one.
Peter: Yeah, when I look at the book, and when I look at even the subtitle of the book, that it’s a study of over 2600 leaders. So, what’s the subset of those 18,000 that you focused on?
Elena: Yeah, we basically pulled, we worked with University of Chicago to extract the sample from the data base. So the 2600 is a sample out of the 18,000 that we analyzed that were 20 years.
Peter: Got it. So that’s all over the board, meaning it could be a me.com company, right? An individual consultant who calls themselves a CEO, as well as the CEO of GE. Am I thinking about this correctly?
Elena: Correct, that’s right. So it’s a very wide sample, and so the last piece of the breadth of the data base is really unique. The depth of data on any one leader is really unparalleled. Because how did we get the data, right? So any conclusions that are in the book are based on at least a five hour in depth analysis of each individual. We sit down, so our clients hire us basically to sit down with these leaders for at least five hours and walk through their entire career history. So we get to hear about the mistakes they’ve made, the results they’ve delivered. All the sequence of roles that they’ve been hired into. So we’ve got a really unparalleled behind the scenes view on what really made these executives successful. Then we didn’t rest there. We added some performance outcomes as well.
Peter: And that was on a much smaller subset then. You didn’t do that five hours with the 2600. So that was a much smaller subset.
Elena: Oh, no, we actually did. So, in fact we spent five hours with 18,000 leaders. So, absolutely. The smaller sample was when we then did a follow on study, went back to investors, boards of directors, and said, “Okay, how did this individual perform?” And so for that we did, because those were follow up studies done with our clients, that was a smaller data set. But absolutely, the minimum time-
Peter: So you did 90,000 hours of research?
Elena: Not me personally.
Peter: Because that’s a lot of research.
Elena: So our firm, yeah, so that’s literally, so yeah that’s absolutely right. That’s kind of a hard to-
Peter: It’s 11,250 eight hour days.
Elena: You’ve got a very quick math.
Peter: It’s 11,250 eight hour days of research.
Elena: I will start crying now, Peter.
Peter: I mean, that’s a little stunning. I mean it’s wow.
Elena: Yeah, it’s a lot of work.
Peter: That’s a lot of work. So, if it’s one person doing it, that would be with no vacations and no weekends, that would be 30 years.
Elena: It’d be a lifetime.
Peter: Of research. So how did you, what kind of a research team did you have that spent five hours with 18,000 different people? That’s …
Elena: Well, so there is the question of how the data got generated, right? And that’s happens in the course of our work with our clients. So our firm has grown and basically every senior consultant at our firm does this type of work. So, we had the benefit of having the firm kind of produce that data over 20 years of client work, right?
Elena: So, the question is, well that’s great but all that data’s sitting in individual assessments. How do we actually bring to bear 21st century analytics?
Peter: Extrapolate it.
Elena: Yeah, and that’s where Steve Kaplan came into play and SAS Institute and lots of others.
Peter: Got it.
Elena: But we had a team, kind of when all was said and done, I think when we published with HBR, we said we had a cross disciplinary team of about 14 people. At this point, it’s closer to a couple of thousand folks who, in one way or another, been instrumental to producing this research.
Peter: Got it.
Elena: It seems to be a bunch.
Peter: Because if it was 14 people doing that, it would only take 2.2 years of their time to do it. So that kind of, I understand that better. That makes more sense. Okay, so-
Elena: Look here, I used to be an accountant back many years ago, but your air math is like way better.
Peter: I work on it. It’s kind of like I’m learning to do these tricks with math. Okay, so tell me, let’s jump now that we’ve done a lot of this time on the research which I find very interesting to really understand what went into it. Let’s jump to the punch line, which is what were the differences that you found? You really came up with four main things that distinguished star CEOs from good CEOs. So, what were those four distinguishing characteristics? Am I thinking about this right? Are they distinguishing characteristics?
Elena: They’re absolutely distinguishing, and I’m kind of tempted to answer your question and tell you more. So, I’ll start with answering your question.
Peter: And then we’ll find out more, we’ll go more.
Elena: So, first of all, when we embarked on this research, we did not fish for any particular hypotheses. So what we didn’t do, is we didn’t interrogate the data against the set of hypotheses that we kind of already pre-assumed. We did a very open exploratory work and part of the reason we had third parties looking at our data is objectivity was really, really important for us. We wanted to isolate, and that’s kind of part of the premise of our whole firm is providing a very fact based and very objective view on whatever we do. And so, we had no idea what would pop out, if anything, frankly.
And so, yeah what we found is a few things. The first shocking finding was that, if you look at the set of variables that is associated with who gets hired for roles, and compared with a set of variables that indicates strong performance, that is four behaviors you talked about, how much of a roll out do you think there is? I mean you already know, because you read the book.
Peter: Yeah, but you’re saying the overlap between the people who are in the roles and the people who exhibit those behaviors.
Elena: The overlap between what it takes to get the job, and what it actually takes to do it well.
Peter: Yeah, you know, I don’t remember the exact number but, it’s not as high as you would want it to be.
Elena: It is not as high as you’d want it to be. And so kind of we uncovered, we were pretty shocked by a few things. Number one, all the stereotypes of what a great CEO looks like kind of went out the window.
Peter: It’s sort of like what Moneyball did when they were talking about baseball, and the people who looked like the right kind of All American baseball players were not actually the ones who constituted a winning team.
Elena: Bingo. So, it is the Moneyball for leadership basically. Absolutely. Because for the first time we’re able to crunch through this data, to say, well it’s interesting because in the board room, we’re still talking about charismatic introvert/extroverts, but actually in our data, it turns out introverts and extroverts are equally likely to succeed. In the board room, we talk about people that have got this tremendous vision, but actually if you look underneath the covers these other four behaviors stand out. In the board room, we still think Ivy League pedigree guarantees success. Well, actually, only seven percent of executives in our data set have an Ivy League undergraduate. Eight percent didn’t graduate from college at all.
And so the furthest thing that stood out for us was, for a role that’s so much in the spotlight of business, and just kind of conscious, how little we actually, how little fact based there is behind what we think of CEOs. And so what we did find though, is those four behaviors do matter. And so the four behaviors that were statistically associated with high performance CEOs, and to make it a little easier for your audience to remember, we came up with this little acronym, DARE. D-A-R-E. So D stands for decisiveness. A stands for adapting proactively. R stands for relentless reliability, and E stands for engage for impact. So, of all the different things you could be thinking about, these are the four things that statistically popped as associated with high performing CEOs.
Peter: And it’s interesting because they’re not surprising in a sense either, like they’re, like you think of a CEO being decisive. You wouldn’t say the opposite. You wouldn’t say, “I’m looking for CEOs who are not decisive, who don’t adapt,” but you wouldn’t necessarily say, “This over all else.” And what you’re saying is, essentially if you’re looking to be a CEO, to be a more effective CEO, or to hire a CEO, you really wanna prioritize these four things.
Elena: Exactly, and more importantly we believe, so the way that we kind of thought about the book versus our client work is, let’s really peak behind the scenes, the secrets of success of the most successful people in business, and how could that apply to any of us no matter where you are in your career. So the cool thing about these four behaviors is yes, absolutely, that’s what stands out about successful CEOs and we use that actively with our clients. But more broadly, how can that help all of us be more effective in what we do, no matter where we are.
Peter: Do extraordinary CEOs or extraordinary people need all four of those things?
Elena: It’s a great question, so we think of it as almost like, think of it as a T shape if you will, right? So you need to be at bar. There needs to be a minimum level of proficiency for four. Nobody, not even kind of “the best CEO in the world” is equally masterful at all four. And different situations, different companies, different contexts require different level of prioritization. So if you’re running a biotech start-up and you can’t adapt, you’ll probably be dead before anybody will hear about you.
Although unfortunately there are also examples of biotech start-ups that failed in relentless reliability like Theranos, right, which was a really disappointing story. But if you’re running by and large, on the other hand, if you’re running a Fortune 10 company and you can’t deliver reliably, well you’re not gonna be in the role for very much longer. So, what we believe and what we’ve seen is that there’s a minimum level of proficiency that’s required, and then you really have to look at the role and specifics of it, and think about what’s really most important here.
Peter: Got it. I’m curious about one thing, which I don’t wanna spend a lot of time on but I’m curious about, which is did you in all your interviews, because you spent a lot of time with people, or at least looking at the data but it sounds like with people, what was their level of self awareness? Meaning, does a CEO, do the excellent CEOs look at themselves and say, “I recognize that I’m decisive, and reliable, and adaptable, and I don’t shy away from conflict?” Or do they generally not have a particularly strong sense of what their capabilities are, but they happen to be very capable in them?
Elena: Peter, that’s such an interesting question. So, I would say, I think there’s kind of a maturity curve, even among CEOs. And someone who’s running a large organization, frankly they probably had different degrees of feedback given to them and so they would tend to be more self aware. By and large, what I would say is that people tend to be fairly self aware of one towering strength they have, right? So, for example, in the book we talked, one of the characters we talk about in the book is Bill Amelio. Bill now runs Avnet, which is an electronics distributor. Anyone you know Bill, and it doesn’t matter if they met him in a grocery store, or if they have known him for 30 years, if you ask them, “What does Bill stand for?” They will say, “It’s relentless reliability.”
In fact, his team when I worked with Bill, talked about his diabolical follow through. And if you ask him, “Hey, Bill. What do you think of these four behaviors,” there’s no doubt he will know exactly where he stands. Same for Scott Clausen. So I think people tend to be self aware around their greatest towering strength, less self aware around their greatest weaknesses, and then kind of everything in the middle could be a mish mash. And actually, although I didn’t even anticipate being asked that question, so we actually construct a self assessment to help anyone, not just CEOs, and you can find it on the book website. Anyone can go on, we’ve had over 11,000 people of all walks of like take that self assessment to help them gauge where they stand on these behaviors. And I’ll let you guess, by the way on which one people scored the highest and the lowest, because it’s pretty interesting.
Peter: Oh, that’s interesting. I would think that people score the … And this is also self assessment, right? So, I may have taken it. I can’t even remember when I read through the book.
Elena: It’s a self assessment, yeah.
Peter: But since it’s a self assessment, I imagine I’m also thinking about how people see themselves, like most people would see themselves as delivering on their promises. I would think that people would see themselves as having integrity as delivering on their promises but I don’t know. But I would think that they are lowest in engaging with stakeholders without shying away from conflict.
Elena: That’s interesting. Well, so you’re right that the biggest single capability of these four behaviors, the one that people tend to over estimate their strength is relentless reliability.
Peter: That doesn’t surprise me.
strong>Elena: Absolutely, which is shocking because I’ll be honest with you, when we uncovered these four behaviors, my co-author, Kim Powell and I had these debates and almost like fights, because we felt it was so pedestrian and so obvious, why would you even put it in the book, right? How is it a CEO quality, but it is yet the one that’s actually people struggled most with.
Peter: Yeah, and I think, I mean I also think it’s an interesting larger conversation about the expectations that people have of their leaders and how they see their leaders, and what kind of leeway they give their leaders in their own criticism of their leaders. And so, it’s like what were you really looking for when you say over estimation, is the gap between what they say and what other people say. And of course, there’s a bias on both sides. Both in terms of how I estimate my own behavior and how other people estimate my behaviors. So I think that’s kind of interesting.
Elena: One of the points in the relentless reliability chapter is all about expectations, so you’re spot on. And then the one where we tend to underestimate their strength is adaptability interestingly.
Peter: That’s interesting.
Elena: So people tend to be much more adaptable than we think we are. We just avoid at all costs, having to adapt.
Peter: It’s so interesting, because one of my questions to you was, that this balance between relentless reliability and adaptability. And I think what some people see as adaptability, others would see as not being reliable. And what some see as very, very reliable, others might see as not being adaptable. So they’re almost like two opposing-
Elena: There’s a tension.
Peter: So there’s a tension between it, so it doesn’t surprise me that if I think you’re not very reliable, I’ll also think that you’re probably super adaptable because you keep changing. So, like I can imagine that, that so when you say it now, it kind of makes sense to me. What kind of a balance did you see? How do people balance that effectively in a way where they are seen by others, and seen able to execute in a reliable way, but also in an adaptable way?
Elena: You know, I think the Ceo role is certainly like tightrope. And that’s part of I think, what’s special about these four behaviors. That we probably all know people in our life who are absolutely incredibly reliable, but at the cost of being rigid and not being adaptable, right? Or they’re incredibly effective at being decisive, but they don’t bring others along. And so part of I think the unique, kind of special sauce is back to that T bar analogy where, you do have to have some balance, and as a CEO, more so than any other role. You do have to be able to walk that tightrope of the inherent contradiction, right? One way, when we look at CEOs who are highly adaptable and highly reliable, is that the being a very, very deliberate communicator is really critical.
Because what they do is they make it clear to everyone around them, what’s the math that goes on in their mind around whether we stick with the plan or we actually pivot. And that’s the third behavior, around engaging for impact is understanding your stakeholders, and being able to communicate with them so that they can come along, and kind of translate from your actions to, “Okay are we being reliable or adaptable in this case, or we’re being kind of neither?” Or just have a-
Peter: So is engaging with stakeholders isn’t just about the willingness to be in conflict but it’s really about effective communication?
Elena: It’s about moving others to the benefit of the enterprise, to kind of to produce results, but that’s needed for the business, yeah.
Peter: Which is primarily communication, or there’s other ways in which they do that?
Elena: It’s communication is kind of a surface way of how it often comes across. It’s obviously a lot deeper than that, and we talk a lot in the book about understanding who your stakeholders are, perspective getting. We offer a lot of tools for how you could do these things. I love though that you hung onto this notion of engaging without shying away from conflict, because I think again in the kind of conventional wisdom, you look at CEOs and gosh, how do you get so many people to follow you, you must be very likable. But the reality is that CEOs do that effectively. Lead for results as opposed to leading just for being liked.
Peter: Right. Well that’s interesting, because a lot of the work that I’ve been doing recently, and my newest book is around emotional courage and the willingness to feel things, and you have to have emotional courage to be in conflict. And when I read that sort of engaging with others and not shying away from conflict, it feels like the greatest way to communicate that you really care, is to effectively be in conflict. Meaning to be willing to stand for something and not shy away from the other person who might disagree and not just go along with them, and as to connecting to yourself, and connecting to them, and connecting to a larger purpose all at the same time. And that’s for the work that I’ve been doing, that’s a big part of the work that I’ve been doing.
Here’s what I’m very interested in. You say that anybody can master these skills, and yet we all know people who seem to be really good at it. Like, here’s someone who’s really decisive, and that on the one hand, everybody can develop them. On the other hand, in some ways few people actually exhibit them effectively. We’re not running around seeing so many people who are really great at all four of these things. What advice do you have to cultivate strength in each of these areas? And maybe just give us one little tidbit for each of the areas or something.
Elena: Well, I can offer a couple that’s cut across, and then some ideas for individual ones. I suspect that anyone listening to your podcast is already a master in some of these behaviors in some domains. For example, decisiveness. We work with plenty of decisive executives that when it comes to making decision on multi million dollar ERP implementation, IT implementation, or deciding, I don’t know, where their new office will be located. So when it comes to “hard things” in business, can be quite decisive. But when it comes to making decision of who will or won’t be on their team, are completely indecisive. And so I think the first step I would recommend to anyone across these four behaviors is really examine whether it’s a self assessment or just really think about what domains are you really strong at in this behavior. Because I’d argue that all of us are strong in some domains.
And then think about, the second question to ask yourself is, “What one additional domain where, if I could improve in, would have the highest benefit. For me, for my family, for my job, etc.” So, for example, in that’s individual’s case, the most important thing for him if he did nothing else and he didn’t have to be master at adapting, he didn’t have to do anything else. But if he could only translate his decisiveness into being more decisive on people, his business would flourish.
Peter: And how do you help him do that? I mean, I can imagine he’ll say, “You know, I can understand. I can look at all the data and I can be, I can do my best statistical forecasting on the amount that I’m spending, but when it comes to people, it’s much harder because there’s so much I don’t know, and I’ve been wrong in the past, and I don’t really have reliable measures.” And you say past performance kind of predicts future performance, but look at all of the smartest recruiters and how often they make mistakes by hiring the wrong people, so-
Elena: About 50% of the time.
Peter: Yeah, so if it’s really random, maybe you’re saying the way to be decisive is if we’ve got two people who look pretty similar, then just shut my eyes, shuffle the papers and pick out one person’s resume. But I don’t think anybody wants to hire a CEO on that grounds. So what advice do you give to someone who’s having a hard time being decisive with who to hire?
Elena: Well, so on that one, on the who, I would probably send them to another best selling book by our co-founder. By our founder, rather, sorry, called Who: The A Method For Hiring. So for 20 years, our firm has helped clients go from a 50/50 coin toss that you’re describing that has been studied and researched that pretty much it’s a 50/50 shot, to about a 90% likelihood of being able to anticipate how someone would perform in the job. And we find that actually when our clients can break the problem down, and take something that’s so soft and gut feel, and so inherently noisy as a decision context and make it more analytical, more rational, more fact based, they get much, much stronger results. So you can literally go from a 50% to a 90%.
Peter: So tell me, while we’re just on that in 30 seconds or less, give us a quick thematic. What’s the underlying, what’s the thesis of how you go from a 50% to a 90%?
Elena: The thesis is actually that simple. That if you apply facts and data to something that’s feels squishy, you will get to better results.
Peter: But what kind of facts and data can you apply to that?
Elena: Step one is actually articulating very, very crystalline clear only what you’re looking for. What success looks like in the role. Not in terms of like, we’ve all seen job specs, right? This person will oversee this number of people. Irrelevant. What you want to be really clear and have it on paper, we’ll call it the score card. Have it on paper. What does success look like in this role. What does this person deliver within the next year of five years that just puts a big smile on my face, right? Is it that they took my company public? Is it that they transformed us from a collection of individual small mom and pop shops to an integrated business? Whatever it is. Is it that they made our brand well known globally? Whatever it is. So, step one is the score card.
And we actually find that our clients, even before we go and do any kind of fancy assessments, they say, “Wow, I thought I knew what I was looking for, but until you actually forced me to sit down and write it down in that explicit of a fashion, I didn’t know that. I wasn’t as clear.” Especially since in this day and age, there’s rarely just one decision maker involved. Doing it co-civilly is very important. That’s one. And then second is actually having a real method to how you interview, and so the methodology that our founder pioneered, it’s called the A Method, and it’s all based on something you alluded to, which is facts about past behavior is the most reliable predictor of future behavior.
Peter: So, it’s sort of like a competency based interview?
Elena: It’s more of … not exactly. In a competency based entering you typically lead the witness. You tell the person, “Give me an example of when you’ve influenced someone.” In our case, we don’t do any of that. We basically just asked them, “Hey, in that role at GE, what are you most proud of?” And then you talk about your balance between understanding the metrics they’ve delivered, and in the back of your mind, thinking about how relevant those are to the scorecard, and letting them tell you what was so great about what they did. Because in this day and age, competency based entering is great when people aren’t trained. Everyone has a great influencing story, everyone has a great leading change story, but when you just leave it completely un-primed, the individual tends to kind of come forward with things that are really dominant for them, as opposed to feeding you the used example they’ve used a long time.
Peter: Got it. Okay this is great. So, like in each of these, they really are developable and the over arching recommendation you have is to look for a place in your life where you are good. Everybody is adaptable, reliable, can engage with people, and decisive somewhere in their lives. So, look at where you are like that in your life, and then apply it to the areas where maybe you’re less decisive or willing to engage, or adaptable or reliable. I love that, I think that’s really great.
As a final question, I’m curious about how the research and writing this book has changed the way you lead, and the way you live your life?
Elena: Oh gosh. Well, it’s funny actually because my co-author and I have literally started using that language. We were stuck in some situation where we were trying to do something and it just wasn’t working. And I remember saying to her, “Kim, we gotta engage for impact. We’re engaging for impact here. Are we engaging with the right people, are we engaging with them in the way that brings everyone on the same page?” It certainly helped us be more focused frankly, on being more decisive. So we’ve become much more deliberate at trying to cultivate those behaviors in ourselves. And then also I’ll tell you for me, I’ve never had a real job as I say. So, I’ve been advising and helping others from the early days of my career.
It was an interesting leadership experience, because we ended up leading this team of a couple of a dozen people, most of whom worked for free, and being able to enlist people behind this idea that initially I would tell you, it started as a purely intellectual pursuit. But after the HBR article and as people got exposed to it, we realized has become so inspiring to so many people in their career, so that’s been a really great leadership journey for us too.
Peter: That’s great. Thank you so much. Elena Botelho. The book is, The CEO Next Door: The Four Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People Into World Class Leaders. She’s also a partner at ghSMART. Elena, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.
Elena: Thank you, Peter, it’s a pleasure.
Peter: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. If you did, it would really help us if you subscribe on iTunes and leave a review.
A common problem that I see in companies is a lot of busyness, a lot of hard work that fails to move the organization as a whole forward. That’s the problem that we solve with our Big Arrow Process. For more information about that or to access all of my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit peterbregman.com. Thank you, Clare Marshall, for producing this episode, and thank you for listening.