A Series on Decision Making Part 3: How Senior Execs Approach Decision Making: A Look at Personality Data From the C-Suite
Author: Dr. Pete Hammett, Visiting Professor
In 2007 when I was a director and senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), I published my first book: “Unbalanced Influence – Recognizing and Resolving the Impact of Myth and Paradox in Executive Performance.” The CCL is a premier provider of leadership development, engaging with a multitude leaders throughout organizations from first-time supervisor to CEOs of some of the largest firms in the world. Over the course of its 45+ years, the CCL has collected data on hundreds of C-level executives who have attended their leadership programs. This data makes it possible to form a picture of the personality and leadership competencies that influence how senior executives approach decision making.
Data on senior executives found that they enjoy tackling difficult problems and are inclined to address issues in a structured, well-organized manner. Making things happen and striving for results is a strength for C-level executives; however, within this strength lies implications for how executives interact with others. Most notably is that senior executives may be so focused on completing a task that they overlook peoples’ feelings and individual accomplishments. Additionally, in their drive to move quickly, senior executives demonstrate an inability to anticipate or react to unforeseen circumstances. Most importantly, senior executives may not take time to celebrate their successes (or the success of others) because they are too busy moving on to the next big project or problem.
Personality and Decision Making
By reviewing personality data from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), we find that executives have a preference for the following:
- Approaching working in a team as a ‘dependent’ function — it depends on what’s at stake and the potential rewards.
- Focusing more on time and making decisions than on the decision making process itself. This sometimes results in cutting off group dialogue too quickly or imposing undue pressure to act.
- Engaging in team decision making by leading with authority, which is problematic if…
- Team members do not get along
- Team members have high levels of independent thinking
- Many defined problems and/or solutions arise and are untested
Decision Making as a Leadership Competency
Three aspects of decision making have traditionally been considered at the CCL. These aspects are sound judgement, forging synergy and courage. Below are observations drawn from reviewing senior executives’ Leadership 360 Assessment data:
- While senior executives, bosses and direct reports identified sound judgment as one of the more important competencies, direct reports did not see this as a strength for their bosses (e.g. senior execs).
- Senior executives gave themselves high marks in the areas of seeing patterns in complex situations, grasping the crux of an issue despite ambiguous information and differentiating between important and unimportant issues. For the most part, bosses and direct reports likewise rate these behaviors higher. However, everyone seems to agree that the executives’ ability to weigh the concern of key stakeholders is not as strong of a behavior.
- Bosses, and particularly direct reports, perceive senior executives’ performance in addressing underlying problems as one the lesser rated behaviors, which may reflect that while senior executives are adept at solving problems, they may not get to the root cause as effectively.
- Executives, bosses and direct reports did not identify forging synergy as a highly important or top strength. So, as it relates to getting things done, fostering collaboration (forging synergy) is not a behavior senior executives draw upon as readily. This is most evident in the ratings for behaviors around resolving conflict and removing barriers to effective teamwork. Thus, senior executives may be more inclined to achieve results and less focused on how the results are achieved.
- There was unanimous consent that courage is a demonstrated strength by senior executives, which we see played out in the ratings for executives’ behavior to act decisively and persevere against difficult problems. Noteworthy are the lower ratings for executives’ behavior toward dealing with issues before they become problems (confronting problems promptly), perhaps suggesting that while senior executives are great at killing problems, they aren’t as adept at preventing issues from becoming troublesome.
Insight on Personal Characteristics and Leadership Success
Several characteristics on consideration, productivity, calmness, optimism and flexibility prove insightful as we continue to review how C-level executives approach decision making.
- Superiors, peers and subordinates scored executives highly regarding questions about being dependable, productive and efficient (the opposite of wasteful). Additionally, we see nominal scores relating to timeliness drawn out on questions regarding effectiveness and procrastination; however, we see lower scores on questions regarding prudence, which is framed in the context of planning for the unexpected.
- While the overall scores on the optimism characteristic indicate that senior executives in general have confidence in their abilities to successfully deal with difficult challenges, we find additional insight reviewing the item level questions in the optimistic scale. For example, senior executives received lower scores on questions relating to mood, temperament and seeing the best in people and situations. While we cannot draw definitive conclusions from this data, we can form some speculations.
- The optimism of senior executives may be highly situational — when things are going well, senior executives are up (optimistic), but this can change if things go south.
- Even though senior executive temperament may turn sour with a setback, they are very resilient and able to bounce back quickly. This may be a result from or an effect of the executive’s self-confidence.
- It may be possible that a senior executive’s self-confidence influences how they perceive others and situations, perhaps suggesting that, at times, they may see the glass half empty versus half full.
- Looking closely at calmness and flexibility, we find additional insight that may help explain the variation in mood and temperament that is observed in senior executives. For example, within the calmness characteristic we see lower scores in areas regarding hurriedness and being ruffled. Reasons for these lower scores may be found in the area of flexibility and, in particular, the senior executive’s ability to adapt to change and deal with ambiguity.
- As it relates to decision making, two factors in the flexibility characteristic are interesting — senior executives’ proclivity to be both headstrong and stubborn. In these areas we see much lower scores. This data lends support to the notion that at times, executives can become enthralled with their own ideas and decisions, even when these ideas may be clear mistakes to others.
Insights on Decision Making and Organizational Effectiveness
While we can see from personality and leadership characteristics that senior executives are able to make quick decisions, the next question we must consider is the quality of these decisions. As one might expect, in organizations where there is a pervasive emphasis on excellence, we see high scores on decision quality; however, there appears to be concern that senior execs will forgo quality objectives in order to meet budgets or deadlines.
Finally, we see mixed results in effectively implementing continuous process improvement practices. Thus, we can infer that while the effect of the senior executive’s decision making as well as the organizational support for making quality decisions is well perceived, there are notable perception gaps on the questions of continuous process improvements, placing doubt that the quality delivered will be sustainable.
 The sample size for the study was over 70 C-level executives, as well as feedback on the performance of these senior execs from over 700 bosses, peers and subordinates. Additionally, insights were drawn from the Campbell Organizational Survey and Leadership Index, the MBTI®, Firo-B and the CCL Executive Dimensions assessments.
 This is often reflected in employee engagement surveys where a top item for attention is providing timely and effective recognition on employee accomplishments.
 In recent years, those in the leadership and organizational development world have seen a remarkable evolution in the quality of competency models. From my experience, the most impactful has been the work done at Korn Ferry. The Korn Ferry model visualizes three competencies within the Making Complex Decisions factor (manages complexity, decision quality and balances stakeholders).