Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Reaper is Sociable: Leadership of Extravert CEOs

There are two important trends in the world of business today.  The first is that traditional large corporations are gradually becoming less important, as new technologies, improved markets, and better financing allow smaller firms to be founded and operate more easily. My predecessor as editor of the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, Jerry Davis, has written a book on that. There is also another trend that seems to indicate that the opposite is happening. There is a small set of extremely large corporations in services, industry, and finance that are amassing exceptional power. Added up, these trends mean that the number of somewhat-large, but not the largest, corporations is declining.

One result of these trends is that researchers are now looking more closely at CEO personality, because in both the smallest and the largest firms any departure from rational decision making is very consequential. It can destroy a small firm, and it can wreak havoc on the world around a large firm.  A paper in Administrative Science Quarterly by Malhotra, Reus, Zhu, and Roelofsen has now examined the extraversion of CEOs and how that influences mergers and acquisitions done by their firms. Extraversion is a personality trait and is one that we understand well and like a lot, at least at parties. Extraverts liven up the world around them because they are sociable, active, and very likable. This is a good thing, but also something that is hard to connect to management.

The connection lies in the less well known side of that personality trait. Extraverts are also agentic – it is very important for them to take care of their own interest and to get ahead of others. Sociability and likability are parts of that trait, because extraversion means that they get to dominate their surroundings.  And outside of parties, the same agentic traits can be reflected in them having clear goals to benefit themselves as much as possible, possibly at the expense of others, and of being skilled at persuading others that their initiatives are good. Does the extravert sound less appealing now, but also more consequential as a manager?

Acquisitions are a great way to test the consequences of extraversion because they eliminate the acquired firm and usually harm the acquiring firm, because on average, acquiring firms lose money by over-paying for the acquisition. As a result, a CEO with the firm’s best interest at heart will be very selective about when to acquire another firm and will typically focus on smaller acquisitions that help the firm acquire important technology, market access, and other missing pieces, while being relatively inexpensive because small firms are often overlooked, or even not listed in the stock market. But small firms are also boring, and not something an extravert wants to acquire in order to grow the firm fast and look good doing it.

So what did the authors find? Indeed extravert CEOs acquire more often, and they acquire larger targets. They are especially likely to do so when they have freer hands, such as when they are in less competitive industries or when they are powerful relative to the board of directors. Turn extravert CEOs loose, and you will see firms around them get eaten up. Of course, all of this would be OK if the acquisitions turned out to be a good thing. Do we know if they did? Well, extraverts got a more positive immediate reaction from the stock market than others, but let’s not believe that this means a lot. First, keep in mind that investors are just another set of people to impress, and extravert CEOs are good at that. Second, better reaction to one acquisition than others does not say much because most acquisitions are not welcome. Third, immediate reaction is very different from the long-term benefit of an acquisition.

So we know that extravert CEOs benefit themselves by getting attention from acquisitions, and by growing the firm so that they in turn can get paid more – a larger firm means better pay. We don’t know whether that helps the firm. And somehow, I can’t help but wonder whether our not knowing is something that the extravert CEO likes a lot.

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