What is harmonious dissonance? Why psychological diversity is important for the C-suite
Putting together an effective C-suite can be challenging. Many CEOs are tempted to surround themselves with individuals who strongly resemble them – strategically, psychologically, even physically.1 But this approach is dangerous: executives who think alike tend to share risk blind spots.2
We know the wrong way to assemble a C-suite. But what is the right way?
Successful C-suites, we believe, must show a diverse array of attitudes along four key dimensions:
A C-suite in which both poles of all four dimensions are represented has what we call “harmonious dissonance”: a constant and dynamic back and forth that leads to effective – and accurate – problem solving.
After all, when attitudes tip too far in one direction on any of these dimensions, disaster can result.
Consider the overly rules-oriented C-suite that cannot step out of its comfort zone to anticipate a disruptive competitor, or the rules-eschewing C-suite that ends up in legal trouble. Creativity and sociability may seem like unqualified positives, but a C-suite in which creativity is given too free a rein may end up distanced from pragmatic reality, and executives in a C-suite that is too sociable may have trouble confronting problems.
And imagine a C-suite where everyone was quite average on every dimension – the ship of strategy would effectively be sitting in still waters, unable to gain momentum in any direction.
To better understand how these balances are constructed in practice, we examined a hypothetical C-suite that we constructed from aggregate leadership and behavioral data in our proprietary database of 7,000 executives. Examining psychometric results for six C-suite figures – CEOs, CFOs, CMOs, CHROs, CIOs/ CTOs, and general counsel, we compared each group’s score to our overall database of executives to understand the most striking aspect of their leadership and behavioral styles, as defined by where they differed from the overall population in a statistically significant manner. We then looked in aggregate across the C-suite to see how these C-suite figures aligned and were at odds for these attributes.
We used our findings to answer four key questions:
1- What traits do C-suite leaders share?
2- How do a diverse array of leadership styles come together in a high-functioning C-suite?
3- What individual archetypes exist within the C-suite?
4- How might the C-suite change given current disruptive trends?
Given the rise of distributed leadership, in which authority is spread out among individuals, understanding what characteristics make for the most successful group is critical.3 Psychological diverse C-suites would work together far more closely and fluidly (and perhaps include an even wider array of figures in service of a truly broad and comprehensive approach).
Harmonious dissonance is not just nice to have: it is essential.
C-suite executives share an agile and engaged style
While harmonious dissonance is crucial for effective C-suite functioning, it is also important to understand what traits characterize the C-suite as a whole.
To do so, we isolated the traits that distinguish three or more of the six C-suite executives on a statistically significant basis.
The picture that emerges is of a group who think – and act – fluidly. They are genuinely interested in others, and generally possess confidence in their colleagues. Neither risk nor variety deters them.
Interestingly, the CEO and CHRO shared traits more frequently than any other pair of C-suite executives, suggesting that these executives act as a stylistically unifying force.
C-SUITE EXECUTIVE GROUPS WHO OVER-INDEX FOR THE FOLLOWING TRAITS IN A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MANNER:
How harmonious dissonance can create a powerful C-suite
When we look at C-suite psychometric data, we see a productive dynamic along our four dimensions of harmonious dissonance:
C-SUITE EXECUTIVE GROUPS WHO OVER-INDEX FOR THE FOUR DIMENSIONS IN A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MANNER:
Examining each dimension individually:
1. ORIENTATION TOWARD PROCESS AND STRUCTURE
CFOs and GCs show a stronger orientation toward process and procedure than their convention-breaking peers. That CHROs line up on the anti-bureaucratic side of the equation is a testament to how much that role has evolved in recent decades: it is now seen as a change agent.
Rules orientation is the only dimension on which CEOs score in the average range – perhaps because effective CEOs must indeed sit in the space between challenging processes and following them.
Balance in sociability in the C-suite exists along two key dimensions: persuasiveness, and leadership dynamism. CEOs and CMOs over-index for enjoying selling their ideas, and for the dynamism to do so effectively, while CFOs and GCs are more reserved with others. CIO/CTOs also possess a dynamic style more similar to that of CEOs and CMOs.
While these findings are again quite intuitive, they are fascinating when viewed in conjunction with the previous dimension, rules orientation. Part of what enables the CFO and GC to be successful in championing guidelines is the fact that they make their points in a direct and fact-based way. CEOs and CMOs get permission to change and even demolish processes by igniting others through their own enthusiastic mien.
By the very nature of their role, CEOs must be optimists, envisioning progress toward a better future. For their part, CFOs would be ineffective without a certain degree of risk awareness. That CHROs are included in the optimistic group again showcases how that role has evolved – they are no longer managing employees as risks but rather seeking to maximize the potential of human capital.
Once again, CEOs and CMOs align: both roles are imaginative and innovative. CFOs, in contrast, build on others’ ideas (as do GCs) and serve as tactical masterminds, making the aspirations of the organization possible.
C-suite archetypes: A psychologically fascinating cast of characters
Having seen where C-suite executives fall along our four key dimensions of harmonious dissonance, let us now consider archetypes for each role, based on their statistically significant psychometric traits. (An average score for an executive on these characteristics is 100.)
What’s next for C-suites:
Disruption and distributed leadership rewrite the psychological playbook
When we use psychometric data to examine attitudes toward change, the members of today’s C-suite fall along a spectrum. CEOs exist in a space somewhere between being change agents and change enablers.
Two major shifts have occurred over the last few years that may fundamentally change the leadership traits needed for certain roles:
CFOs and GCs are being selected for their ability to be robust business partners within the C-suite. This entails a stronger shift to persuasion. While this is a positive development for many companies, it will be interesting to see how the C-suite rebalances. Who will now act as the brakes?
One candidate is the CIO/CTO. Given the prominence of cybersecurity issues, CIOs and CTOs are called on to be more risk-conscious than they were in previous eras. Accordingly, this would shift them further into the risk management camp.
As the C-suite rebalances, CEOs may move in either direction – toward risk management or toward further disruption, depending on the approach their company takes to an increasingly disrupted environment.
When the C-suite scales are in dynamic balance
WHOLE FOODS: MAKING A HIGHLY UNUSUAL C-SUITE STRUCTURE WORK VIA MUTUAL RESPECT, TRUST, AND HONESTY
Whole Foods: Making a highly unusual C-suite structure work via mutual respect, trust and honesty
A team that’s aligned in purpose and principle: The most important decisions at Whole Foods are made via consensus at the executive level. Co-CEOs Walter Robb and John Mackey take pride in having developed a culture of mutual respect and trust. CFO Glenda Flanagan says that “the value of the team” is one of the greatest lessons she has learned at Whole Foods, and that “to be aligned on purpose and principle helps [the C-suite] feel inspired and empowered.”
Leveraging each other’s strengths and unique characteristics: Co-CEO Mackey is known for having a passion for healthy eating and being a visionary. Robb has deep operational experience and a passion for customer experience. Robb and president and COO A.C. Gallo are both brilliant retailers, but have different leadership styles. Gallo is sought after for his calmness and uncanny good judgment, while Robb considers himself a “push leader.”
DEAN STAMOULIS leads the RRA Center for Leadership Insight. He provides guidance to boards and chief executive officers on how to build excellent leadership teams. This advisory work includes optimizing hiring, promotion, and succession decisions, and contributing to the development of promising senior executives. He is based in Atlanta.
3. “Distributed Leadership in Organizations: A Review of Theory and Research” – International Journal of Management Reviews, Vol. 13, 251–269 (2011)