Conscientiousness: The other CEO competency


The word ‘conscientious’ stimulated my curiosity last week after I came across a bit of research describing successful CEOs as having more execution-oriented skills than interpersonal and team-related skills. The authors, Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov, and Morten Sorensen, in a study entitled Which CEO Characteristics and Abilities Matter, say qualities like ‘steadfastness’ and ‘conscientiousness’ are the best predictors of success (their study focuses on success factors for LBO and VC transactions).
My mind associates the word to public servants and diligent bureaucrats. So I then turned to a series of CEO interviews conducted by Adam Bryant, a writer for the New York Times, who interviews a different CEO each week in his column, The Corner Office, focusing on leadership and management. Different CEOs get the same questions from week to week but of course the answers vary. So I pulled several of these interviews off the internet, trying to get a feel for how these CEO’s lead their companies and the competencies they focus on.

Steve Ballmer is interested in efficiency and results. He’s looking for executives at Microsoft to be integrated with the outside world, especially at the intersection of technology, customer needs and the market. He looks for smarts, passion and results, not style. Conscientious, yes, and not terribly worried about how others see his soft skills. Traditionally, as a purveyor of software, Microsoft needed to be sales-driven, pushy; but as an Internet company, Microsoft needs to adapt to new business models.

Bob Iger, of Disney, comes across as more touchy-feely. He has worked on becoming more patient and a better listener (sounds good). He looks for integrity and energy in others and likes to stay connected to the world (he loves gadgets).

Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines, looks for reliability and adaptability to change in executives. He likes ‘operational awareness,’ not surprising, given his industry where pilots need to be operationally aware of their external environment. He also comes across as more holistic and integrative in his assessment of people, looking for emotional intelligence as a way to become more adaptive to change.

The word ‘conscientious’ would seem to apply to all of these executives.

Kevin Sharer, CEO of Amgen comes across as disciplined, high in learning – he constantly seeks feedback. He comes across as high in humility (different from modesty) which relates to his desire for feedback, authenticity, learning, and change. It would seem that the world of biotechnology is constantly changing. Again, one might sum it up as conscientious.

I like that word, though it doesn’t turn up in the usual list of executive competencies. It can be more holistic than words like ‘diligent,’ combining a number of qualities that, to me, arise out a motivation to put the needs and goals of the business before the needs of any one individual, including the CEO himself. It would be a mistake to conclude that results can be achieved without the need to build teams and relate to others, but let’s remember that teaming and communication is a means to an end and results do matter.

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