CEOs Are 66% More Likely To Have This Personality Characteristic

This article originally appeared on Forbes by Mark Murphy, Founder of Leadership IQ

What differentiates CEOs from all the people who never make it to the c-suite? Is it brains? Ambition? Luck? The answer will vary from company to company, but there are some characteristics that appear across organizations. And one such characteristic is how people approach change.

This past month, 4,018 leaders and professionals have taken the free online test “How Do You Personally Feel About Change?” One of the questions asks respondents to select from these options:

  • I undertake career/business changes that others describe as difficult or audacious.
  • I undertake career/business changes that are achievable and realistic.
  • I don’t undertake very many career/business changes.

If you’ve ever struggled to convince people to start a really big change, you won’t be surprised to learn that less than a third of respondents undertake changes that are difficult or audacious. Generally people either avoid change or they undertake changes that seem more achievable. All the clichés about change being hard and people avoiding change are pretty accurate.

But while this is true overall, I discovered big differences in how people view change when I dissected the data by position. For instance, 45% of top executives undertake changes that others describe as difficult or audacious. But for frontline employees, that number is only 27%. So in the average company, the CEO is 66% more likely to want audacious change than the employees.

The following chart shows the data for all job levels:

You can see from the chart that there is a very strong linear relationship between how high a person ranks in the company and how much they undertake audacious change.

Frontline employees and junior managers are more likely to enjoy the traditional status quo, and if they do embrace change, it’s more likely to be cautious and measured.

By contrast, CEOs are much more likely to be the change advocates I call Venturers. Venturers are motivated by risk, change, and uncertainty. They thrive when the environment or the work is constantly changing. They tend to like challenges and jump at the opportunity to be the first to do something new. And that means they’re also not terrified of failure, especially if they know they’ll find a chance to try again. Venturers prefer adventure to security. In fact, they find doing the same thing every day incredibly boring. They like to break through their comfort zones, so they regularly challenge themselves with audacious and difficult challenges.

Venturers have some very distinct personality characteristics. And it’s no small coincidence that these characteristics are found more often in CEO roles than in frontline employees or junior managers. In fact, we might surmise from this data that perhaps one way to increase your odds of becoming CEO is to undertake more difficult and audacious change. It’s no guarantee of career success, of course. And obviously, if 45% of CEOS undertake big changes, that means 55% either embrace a more cautious change or avoid change altogether. But the linear relationship between one’s rung on the career ladder and audacious change is really striking. And for anyone interested in discovering the secrets to becoming CEO, this is important data to absorb.

It’s also a good measurement with which to evaluate your current CEO. Do they undertake audacious and difficult change, or are they more cautious and circumspect? When it comes to figuring out what types of change you should pursue to advance your career, one important barometer is the type of change that’s generally supported in your company. If you undertake change that’s too cautious, you risk being left behind. But if you’re on the audacious end of the spectrum and your CEO is not, you might find yourself in political hot water.

Is undertaking audacious change an inborn personality characteristic? Is it learned? Or is it some combination of the two? The truth is, we don’t definitively know, but it’s a good bet that both nature and circumstance have a role to play.

It is true that some people are more predisposed to undertake significant change, climb higher mountains, and tolerate more risk. And this is generally observable in even very small children. On your local playground you’ve probably seen some kids who look like they’re ready for the X-Games while others seem intimidated by the monkey bars.

But it’s also true that CEOs are often under great pressure to undertake audacious change. Boards regularly compare their CEO to executives like the late Steve Jobs, who talked about making a dent in the universe, or other larger-than-life personalities. And if you’re the CEO being compared to Steve Jobs, you are going to feel pressure to undertake more audacious and difficult changes, just to have any hope of comparing favorably.

So what should you do with all this information? Start simply. Look at your current company. Are there lots of big changes or are things pretty status quo? Is your CEO a Venturer or more cautious? Then once you have a handle on your current environment, do an honest assessment of yourself. How would people describe your approach to change? And how does that assessment fit within your current environment?

Mark Murphy is a NY Times bestseller, author of Hiring For Attitude, and founder of the leadership training firm Leadership IQ.


Posted by Mark Murphy on 12 September, 2016 Change Management, Forbes, Leadership Skills | 1 comment
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  • Floyd Shaw - October 14, 2016

    The results indicate that I’m a pragmatist. I can’t say that I knew it all along. I’ve never been in a leadership or management position. But, I do know that I value results above all else. I strive to be the best I can and I would think that others would feel the same.

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