What We Know: The State of Data-Driven Leadership Advisory

By: Dean Stamoulis, Tom Handcock, and Amy Scissons



This article is part of research carried out under Leadership Analytics, a pillar of Leadership Labs.



Big data has barreled through nearly every industry on the planet, leaving a trail of efficiencies, process improvements, and better decisions in its wake. But that transformative momentum has been relatively slow to reach the executive search and leadership advisory space.

Now, more than ever, organizations want to know that they are hiring best-in-class CEOs. They know that hiring great leaders is the key to navigating unprecedented uncertainty and volatility. Yet too often, they rely on “dark arts” to make their decision—whether that’s personal experience, a hunch, or, yes, their unconscious biases.

But things are getting bigger.

We foresee a future for leadership advisory that wholly embraces the use of big data. One where our experienced advisors use predictive analytics and machine learning to help organizations make better, more confident decisions.

With our Leadership Analytics Lab, we’re moving closer to this data-driven operative state—and part of getting there means taking account of where the industry is at today.


  Leadership advisory team

How data is being used in executive search and leadership advisory today

Right now, the industry’s use of data remains mostly small-scale and walled-off. Data is typically collected and analyzed within the constraints of independent CEO projects and disseminated on a need-to-know basis.

Occasionally, those individual-centric datasets—candidate profiles, psychometrics, biographical data, and performance records—are juxtaposed against team- and company-level data (such as financial performance, shareholder and board sentiment, etc.) to provide additional context.

But even that data wrangling is done manually—and the insights they provide are often only held in the heads of case consultants and board members.

That’s not to say that the industry hasn’t taken steps toward being data-driven.

In fact, at RRA, we’ve made big strides over the past decade to bring science to the art of leadership decisions. Every year, we conduct extensive research into the field of leadership, focusing on front-of-mind topics for boards and society.

That means collaborating with expert teams across other industries and educational establishments—including Hogan Assessment, Harvard Business School, Imperial College London, the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC), and more.

The insights we pull from our research endeavors help clients better understand (and prioritize) the skills they need to look for in their next CEO.

Where we’re mapping leadership

Understanding leadership means approaching it from every angle. Here’s a sample of some of the multi-faceted research initiatives that RRA has conducted in recent years.


01 Leadership SPAN

Our research led to the development of the Leadership SPAN—a unique leadership assessment tool, developed in partnership with Hogan, that identifies a leader’s ability to balance contrasting traits to meet the needs of modern business.

What we learned: Through empirically validated research, we found the most effective leaders typically “span” four dualities. They are both disruptive and pragmatic; risk-taking and reluctant; heroic and vulnerable; and galvanizing and connecting.

Find out more


02 Deciphering the DNA of sustainable leadership

Through our work with the UNGC , we analyzed 50+ CEOs and other executives around the world who had made the most progress on sustainability to understand what made them different.

What we learned: Our research showed that all of the studied leaders who moved the needle on sustainability in their organizations possessed a distinct sustainable mindset with four key attributes: Multi-level systems thinking, stakeholder inclusion, disruptive innovation and long-term activation.

Learn more about our findings


03 Measuring the potential of soft skills

Partnering with faculty members from Harvard Business School and Imperial College London, we harnessed machine learning tools to analyze 5,000 anonymized C-suite job descriptions from the last 20 years. We wanted to understand which skills were becoming more important, and which ones less so.

What we learned: Over the past two decades, companies have significantly redefined the roles of C-suite executives. One capability was seen as more essential than any other: strong social skills. We found that companies decreased mentions of strength in managing financial and material resources by almost 40% and increased mentions of strong social skills by almost 30%.

Learn more about our findings


04 Investigating key leadership traits and the gender gap

As the world shifts on its axis, we wanted to know: What exactly does it now mean to be a great leader? Which leadership skills are now in highest demand? And what implications does this have for the diversity of executive teams at leading organizations around the world?

To find answers, we analyzed thousands of role specifications (the documents we create with clients when they’re looking for their next executive) as well as psychometric data from global leadership interviews. We found clear evidence that we are living through the beginnings of a leadership revolution that could dramatically accelerate the closure of the gender gap in organizations around the world.

What we learned: Out of this study, a clear fact emerged: when it comes to the most in-demand leadership skills, there are no discernible differences between the sexes.

Learn more about our findings


05 Decoding Top Team Effectiveness

We’re big believers that a data-driven approach can help CEOs assemble high-performing teams that drive better results and foster a healthier, more inclusive organizational culture. But until recently, there were few resources available to address the specific challenges and needs of top teams. To plug the gap, we researched CEOs and CxOs to understand what made high-performing teams different.

What we learned: Our research has found that the key to building those successful top teams lies in the ability to balance four essential tensions—Adaptability, Perspective, Atmosphere, and Team Leadership.

Read more here




One step further: A vision of data-led leadership advisory

  Leadership advisory team

Our existing research has powered us forward. But what if we could do more? What if could supercharge our understanding of what makes a CEO a great CEO—and then use this to predict the future performance (or underperformance) of CEO candidates?

It all leads to Leadership Analytics.

We envision a future where leadership advisory is more effective than ever for companies. Where advanced, data-first tools are used to help organizations make tough decisions about their next CEO with confidence—with consultants like us acting as a conduit of human intuition and lived experience.

And, by doing so, level the playing field for leaders of all ilks.

The existing research on the power CEOs wield over organizational performance is mixed and evolving. 

  • Thomas (1988) found CEOs are responsible for 3.9% to 7.0% of firm performance. 
  • Mackey (2008) found that CEOs account for 29.2% of unexplained variance in company profitability. 
  • Hambrick and Quigley (2014) found that CEOs account for 35.5% of firm outcomes (measured as return on assets)

Some academics and data scientists have tried to make the link between CEO psychology and performance. Wang, Holmes, Oh, and Zhu (2016), for example, carried out a comprehensive review of the research literature on CEO attributes and firm performance and could only conclude that CEO attributes might affect corporate success.

To be the best of our knowledge, no one has yet proved a strong correlation between CEO psychology and performance. And no one has been able to proactively predict how likely it is that a CEO candidate will be successful once in the corner office. That’s what we’re setting out to change.



Ready to see what comes next?

If we intend to keep serving our clients (and the world) to the best of our abilities, our industry is in need of transformative change. We believe a data-driven approach is the way forward.

With this change, consultants and boards will be able to apply their years of experience more effectively, using their know-how to discern high-grade nuance instead of crunching data. They’ll be able to build teams that not only work well together, but work better together, building upon each others’ strengths and shoring up any weaknesses.

Our field has undergone a significant shift over the past years, and this evolution is set to continue.

Join us on this journey, as we prepare to take our next step in improving the way the world is led.


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Find out more about what we’re doing in the data leadership space with Leadership Analytics.