Inside the C-Suite: Q&A with Kim Powell, Co-Author of ‘The CEO Next Door’

Mary Lorenz

Dreaming of leading a company someday, but don’t have a college degree? That’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. Nor is having a few hiccups on your resume, or being on the introverted side. According to Elena L. Botehlo and Kim R. Powell, authors of The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders, becoming a senior executive is more attainable than one might realize.

“I think we’ve all gotten this picture over time that a CEO is this kind of perfect individual on a pedestal,” says Powell, a principal at leadership advisory firm ghSMART. But after an in-depth analysis of 2,600 leaders drawn from a database of more than 17,000 CEOs and C-Suite executives and over 13,000 hours of interviews, she and her co-author found that many of the commonly held beliefs about CEOs are actually false. In fact, becoming a CEO is actually fairly attainable for most of us. Powell recently spoke with CareerBuilder about the surprising findings from the study, the skills it takes to make it to the top, and what drives success once you’re there.

In your research, you found that many of the stereotypes surrounding CEOs are wrong. Can you talk about some of those findings?

One thing that gets talked about a lot in the media is the importance of having a particular pedigree to be a CEO. But in our data set, we had more CEOs who did not have a college degree than CEOs who had an Ivy League degree, which was surprising to me. I think there’s a lot of question in the zeitgeist right now around “What’s a college degree worth? Do you need to spend that money on your undergrad?” And part of the message of our book is “You don’t have to have this pedigree to become CEO. That shouldn’t be a barrier for you.”

The other one I was personally interested in was, I had this perception that CEOs are larger than life. The CEO as this extroverted hero is a view you often get from the media. But we found that CEOs who describe themselves as introverted were slightly more likely to exceed performance expectations than extroverts were. The other thing that was striking to me was the stronger CEOs used the word “we” relative to “I” at a higher rate. They talked about their career story in terms of “we,” [referring to] the team, while the weaker candidates used a higher ratio of “I.” The strong CEOs are the ones who really think about the unit, the team, and [their success] is the team’s accomplishment.

Third, I had this impression that these CEOs had a goal from early on to be a CEO. But a lot of these leaders in my assessment didn’t necessarily have this aspiration. It was typically at the role just prior to becoming CEO that they thought, “I could be CEO.” So [becoming a CEO] is not something where you have to have a relentless, lifelong goal.

Finally, another stereotype is the flawlessness. [The idea that] you have to have a flawless resume. Almost half of our CEOs had a career blow up at some point – they either got fired or destroyed significant value. What was most interesting, though, was the CEOs who were the strongest performers never talked about those events as failures. They talked about them as lessons learned or mistakes they applied to make themselves stronger in the future.

Did you see any differences between male and female CEOs?

We looked at whether there were major differences across behaviors, and we looked at whether gender was a predictor of performance levels. And we found that women were not less likely or more likely to perform versus men. Meaning, gender was not a predictor of performance. So you cannot say women are less likely to perform as CEOs. Our research doesn’t support that.

Why do you think there is still so little representation?

I feel really strongly that there is so little representation because what gets you hired is not the same thing as what drives performance. We did look at what drives a hiring decision versus what drives performance, and they didn’t correlate. So we dug into it and, the reality is, still today, a lot of decisions are made on gut feel, and when you’re making decisions based on initial rapport and likeability versus data or facts or a track record of performance, you’re going to insert your own biases. If you strip away gut feel and operate using an objective consistent process to compare across candidates, folks that are in the minority – however you define that – will have a better shot. Because they’re evaluated on the strengths of their accomplishments, and not on rapport or likability.

In addition to these professional behaviors, did you look at lifestyle?

We didn’t explicitly do a time study outside of work, but… the lifestyle thing came up in a few places. One was in the hazards they found in moving into CEO role, specifically in losing their identity and realizing they were under a microscope in a way they hadn’t been before. There’s a lot published around stress and loneliness, and how CEOs manage that. We didn’t explicitly build that into what we were gathering, but interestingly, about a third of our interviews brought up, unprompted, issues around loneliness, isolation, and stress related to the role.

Were there any other findings from the study that surprised you?

The big one is that what gets you hired is not necessarily what drives high performance. The second was that the behaviors we saw as differentiating were muscles you can actually build. You’re not just born with them. It takes practice, and it doesn’t come easy, but they are buildable.

The third piece is this concept of fallibility. These CEOs we studied make mistakes. They’re not perfect. And I think if you take CEOs off the pedestal a bit, more individuals will see that they have that potential and in today’s day and age. We need to get more great leaders into these roles, because it will positively impact the economic engine.

The last surprise is, one of the differentiating behaviors was around decisiveness – meaning the ability to decide with speed and conviction. Being a successful CEO is not about making great decisions every time. It was rather about the ability to be decisive, move quickly, learn from mistakes, train that muscle and get better over time.

What’s one thing you want readers to take away from your book?

Being strategic about your career choices is really important. The opportunity ahead isn’t as important as the job title. I’m constantly surprised by the executives I meet who aren’t as thoughtful as they could be about their next opportunity. They don’t ask, “Is this a scenario in which I can be at my best? Where I can leverage my strengths and develop on a couple of dimensions?” The really successful CEOs are quite thoughtful about how they fit into the needs of that role in that company, at that moment. I think there’s a lesson for us all to learn in terms of being thoughtful around our career choices and putting ourselves in positions where we can really be at our best.

Read next: Women Are Moving into Roles that Have Traditionally Been Held by Men - and Vice Versa


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