What South Africa’s top CEOs have in common

Companies spend months sourcing top leaders for their executive teams, at great cost, yet often these newly appointed leaders fail to perform to expectation, which further impacts on the morale and bottom line of an organisation.

In many cases, the fault can be traced back to the hiring brief, which is often informed by outdated ideas of what makes a good leader, according to Debbie Goodman-Bhyat, CEO of executive search firm, Jack Hammer.

“After 20 years sourcing senior leaders, executives and CEOs, and having taken more than 2,000 briefs from boards and hiring managers, we continue to hear the same descriptive words and phrases used time and time again, which points to a common belief system that hiring managers have about what a successful leader looks like,” she said.

“This includes not just the credentials, but also the physical demeanour and the personality traits of the individual. This belief system comes from an archetypal view around the ‘hero’ image – the one who is going to save the day and lead the team and the organisation forward.”

“It is notable that very few of these commonly held beliefs about the ‘persona’ of a leader are interrogated with actual data.”

Quiet guys finish last

According to Goodman-Bhyat, one of the most common misconceptions about what makes a desirable leader, is that an extrovert is more likely to be successful than an introvert.

Citing Harvard’s annual CEO Genome Project, a 10-year study that aimed to identify the specific attributes that differentiate high-performing CEOs, Goodman-Bhyat noted that American boards still think a successful CEO is “a charismatic six-foot-tall white man with a degree from a top university, who is a strategic visionary with a seemingly direct-to-the-top career path and the ability to make perfect decisions under pressure”.

“Our findings challenged many widely held assumptions. For example, our analysis revealed that while boards often gravitate toward charismatic extroverts, introverts are slightly more likely to surpass the expectations of their boards and investors,” the study noted.

Local research

According to Goodman-Bhyat, local research conducted for Jack Hammer by JvR Africa Group reached similar insights, and both studies are amply supported by anecdotal evidence in the practical business world.

“I have seldom, if ever, had a brief from a board or hiring manager noting a preference for an introverted leader,” she said.

“In fact, they almost always want someone who is a charismatic extrovert and makes a great personal impression on first meeting.”

“Now we know that an outgoing individual who is great at breaking the ice and generates their energy from external sources – the true meaning of extroversion – is going to be a lot more successful in an interview.”

But that person is unlikely to be significantly more successful in the job according to the data, like clockwork, top quality leaders with incredible track records are being excluded based solely on the fact that they did not come over as charismatic enough during the interview, Goodman-Bhyat said.


Another briefing point requiring careful thought is that of qualifications, noted Goodman-Bhyat.

“In South Africa, boards and excos are incredibly invested in high level qualifications as a measure of success. While they may not necessarily believe that it’s a predictor of success, they similarly are almost disbelieving that someone with just a basic tertiary qualification could possibly be a successful CEO or executive.”

“Gone are the days when experience spoke for itself.”

“Yet, if you look at the number of exceptionally successful entrepreneurs who have grown huge, profitable businesses with nothing more than a high school certificate, this proves the fact that an expensive education is not a key driver of success.”

“Of course, education is always an asset, but it is clear that performance is possible without a high-level degree.”

She noted that hiring managers were becoming increasingly blinded by the glow of an Ivy League degree on a South African CEO candidate’s CV.

“In many cases the ‘right’ degree on a CV adds some kind of ‘WOW’ factor. But it is important to distinguish between ‘really bright academically’ and ‘really successful as a leader’. A degree in no way predicts leadership success, so to use it as a screening criterion doesn’t really make sense,” said Goodman-Bhyat.

“Our best advice to decision-makers in the hiring process is to examine some of their internal belief systems around the ‘perfect’ leader.

“It may be here that new answers emerge, resulting in different recruitment decisions and more successful CEOs,” Goodman-Bhyat concluded.

Read: 3 out of 5 businesses fail in SA despite showing a profit

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What South Africa’s top CEOs have in common