Old CEOs and bold CEOs

A recent HBR articles hints that those who make it to CEO fastest aren’t always the best case studies.

Geoff Wilson

Perusing the business press recently I came across an article on the Harvard Business Review website by a couple of partners at talent advisory firm ghSmart.  I’m partial to a lot of the tools and techniques that Geoff Smart and his firm have developed over time. And, I have found that management teams I work with who employ those techniques generally improve their approach to talent evaluation and elevation. This one left me…wanting, however.

The article is titled “The Fastest Path to the CEO Job, According to a 10-Year Study.” In it, the two authors outline how pedigree isn’t really all that for those who rise to the CEO role the fastest.  These so-called “CEO Sprinters”–the people who get to be CEO faster than the average time-to-office of 24 years–get there by taking big risks. The authors’ insight into these “sprinters” amounts to this:

“We discovered a striking finding: Sprinters don’t accelerate to the top by acquiring the perfect pedigree. They do it by making bold career moves over the course of their career that catapult them to the top.”

And to follow that up, the article outlines three archetypal “bold” moves: jumping to a much smaller role or company, jumping on a much larger role than they were nominally prepared for, and inheriting and sorting out a big mess.  It’s very tough to call that a blinding insight. I would go so far as to call it a dangerous one because it ignores all the potential outcomes of such risk taking.

The reason it’s dangerous goes all the way back to an old saying in the aviation world that goes something like this:

“There are old pilots and there are bold pilots…but very few old, bold pilots.”

That is to say, that for every CEO who is lauded for the career-making “bold” (risky) move to something smaller/bigger/messier before it was time, there is likely a vast number of mid-career managers sitting around wondering why they took that kind of risk.

In other words, when we evaluate CEO Sprinters for what made them successful, and point to bold moves, we have to account for the risk inherent to such bold moves and for all the “sprinters” who never made it. Or else, we are just evaluating a gamble.  We aren’t evaluating a skill.  That’s, after all, what a great–truly seasoned–CEO does in real life.  They don’t take bold leaps willy nilly. They evaluate risks and returns…and make decisions accordingly.

I liken the HBR article referenced to a never-written article on how to play winning blackjack that points to how the “big winners” in blackjack made very large bets at very opportune moments.  Sure they did.  But a lot of people who followed that strategy–in fact if you believe in statistics almost all who follow that strategy–lose…bigtime.

If you are reading this post and thinking about your career “catapults,” I’ll encourage you to think about taking calculated risks, not gambles. That means that the core insights of the HBR article are, in fact, pretty cool; but they need a healthier dose of realism to be actionable.

So, don’t just look at anecdotal CEOs who have “made it” as role models for how to make it. Just because your CEO made his name be moving his family to Myanmar and turning around a manufacturing plant there doesn’t mean that the path to CEO is through malaria and dengue.

He might have survived a really stupid career move.  Sure, you can make it to CEO quickly by making a series of risky, possibly stupid, but lucky career moves…but you won’t necessarily stay there long.

And, that’s just it: survivorship bias is endemic to evaluating those sitting in such rare roles. You might say that there are old CEOs, and there are bold CEOs, but very few old, bold CEOs.

What do you think? 

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *