Board and CEO Advisory Partners

Men and Women for Their Time: The Three Types of CEOs and the Fine Art of Choosing the Right Type


​Men and Women for Their Time:

Can CEOs be categorized?

When the business media talks about CEOs, they tend to either lionize or demonize them.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing bailouts, the media’s coverage of corporations and the C-suite naturally focused on the “villain” CEO. As the world emerged from the crisis and the impact of digital disruption started to be felt across the business world, the focus shifted toward the star—the disruptor CEO. And of course the crisis-stricken CEO—grappling with a formidable challenge or potentially businessdestroying incident—is a figure of perpetual fascination.

These stories captivate us.

But do they represent reality?

And more importantly, are they helpful to companies trying to select CEOs?

Having explored the psychology of CEOs in “Inside the Mind of the CEO,” we decided to investigate another fundamental question using psychometric data: what types of CEOs are companies choosing from?

When a board begins to look for a new CEO, what should be its starting point for that search?

Put simply: what should it look for?

To address this question, we merged two lines of research thinking—one “old-school” and one driven by cutting-edge data techniques. We wanted to understand what kinds of strategic needs companies have and what types of CEOs there are for them to choose from. We used the following methodology:

  1. Academic research—how do we categorize business strategies? We examined more than 30 business taxonomies to try to understand how organizational researchers have traditionally categorized the set of opportunities and threats a business is facing, or will face. Our final synthesis was particularly indebted to Miles and Cameron’s seminal 1982 notions of domain offense, domain defense, and domain creation.

  2. Data-driven analysis—can data mining show us naturally occurring groups of CEOs? Using binary (high/low) representations of the 60 psychometric attributes in our model, we conducted a cluster analysis to understand whether the 200+ CEOs in our sample could be sorted into meaningful subgroups.





Companies attempting to expand their existing businesses 


In the Attack context, CEOs are quite simply charged with moving organizations forward. This business context requires someone with a strong natural internal energy source—and the flexibility to navigate a wide array of situations with aplomb.

Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks: Schultz, like many Attack CEOs, has time and again demonstrated his ability to question the status quo and take necessary risks to dramatically expand the company’s footprint—such as when in 2008 he closed every Starbucks store to retrain all 115,000 employees. The company lost $6 million that day, but the reward for this risky act was a palpable renewal in the Starbucks brand.

Meg Whitman, CEO, HP: Whitman is an excellent example of how the Attack context and the sharply distinguishing characteristics of an Attack CEO can be relevant during a business turnaround. Her self-assured and forthcoming nature has been cited as critical to her successful split of HP into two more focused entities—a move which represented the improvement and expansion of capabilities in currently occupied markets.

Lars Sørensen, CEO, Novo Nordisk: Sørensen, named the world’s best performing CEO by Harvard Business Review in 2015, is well-known for his tough negotiation style and bold yet well-calculated moves. He has steadfastly resisted pressure to diversify away from the core diabetes market and has instead created tremendous growth within that well-defined arena. In 2011, he halted insulin deliveries to Greece when the cash-strapped Greek government asked for a price reduction of more than 25% on the drug, which he claimed would make Novo Nordisk a “captive supplier,” and managed to negotiate a less hefty reduction.


Companies defending a market position in a given area


In the Fortification context, CEOs are tasked with defending and protecting the core performance of a business—generally after it has achieved remarkable growth—as competitors or other forces present themselves in the market. Businesses in Fortification mode need leaders who are moderate, yet determined, focused on driving efficiencies, yet able to see market opportunities, and who are willing to lead by consensus, but are also not afraid to speak their minds when needed.

Alan Mulally, former CEO, Ford: The circumstances under which Alan Mullaly entered the CEO role at Ford were daunting: the company had just reported a nearly $13 billion loss on top of a decline in market share of 25% in recent years. Mullaly saw the company’s “survival of the fittest” culture as a core underlying issue and took pains to foster a more collaborative, accepting, and honest environment. He operated in a “servant” leadership style, personally responding to employee emails and choosing the employee cafeteria over the executive dining suite. This attention to partnership paid concrete dividends—Mullaly famously convinced the UAW (by sharing key financial information) to accept concessions, creating a win-win for both company and union.

Paul Anderson, former CEO, BHP Billiton: When Paul Anderson took the helm at BHP in 1998, the company had been without a CEO for nine months and was strongly in Fortification mode. Being an outsider in more than one way—an outsider CEO and an American in an Australian heritage company—Anderson knew that his success depended on gaining the trust of his senior colleagues. In a meaningful demonstration of his desire to lead collectively, he elicited deep insight from his leadership team and incorporated their thoughts into his strategic plan. Anderson saw that BHP’s future was as a resources company and not a product or services company, as some executives had proposed. This strategic focus led to a significant rationalization of the company’s asset base, laying the groundwork for a successful merger with fellow miner Billiton.


Companies creating new markets



Genesis means “the origin or mode of formation of something.” Accordingly, CEOs in the Genesis context are market creators and possess a “founder mentality” (whether or not they are actually founders). They possess a unique sense of customers’ needs (especially those which customers themselves may not recognize) and an innate desire to set their own agenda.

Travis Kalanik, CEO, Uber: On a visit to the Eiffel Tower with his friend Garrett Camp, who convinced him to start Uber, Kalanik decided to hop over the barriers—as his friend Camp later recalled—to “get a better view” of the city. This anecdote can serve as the literal illustration of the thinking of Genesis CEOs: they are not afraid to cross boundaries or eschew rules to reach what they want.

Reed Hastings, CEO, Netflix: When Hastings tried—and failed—to sell his company to Blockbuster in 2000, he did not give up on what he believed to be a service that was bound to take off. He was comfortable taking unilateral action where many others would have retreated. Sure enough, five years later Netflix had become the undisputed leader in the online video rental market, beating out Blockbuster, which in 2010 filed for bankruptcy protection.

The best CEOs are able to pivot between contexts


Great companies are adaptable, and strong CEOs hone that quality


Apple, the world’s most valuable brand, began firmly in the GENESIS context. Steve Jobs, like many Genesis CEOs, had an unbridled imagination and uncanny ability to envision products that consumers did not even know they wanted or needed. He was not afraid of failure, nor was he bound by conventional norms of what makes success. That’s why when he dropped out of college—like many other Genesis CEOs—he didn’t look back, nor did he give up when he was fired from Apple. He started all over again and founded another company, NeXT, which was later acquired by Apple, marking his return to the company as well as the beginning of a new—and extraordinary—phase for Apple and the broader tech world.

When Tim Cook, former COO of Apple, took over the CEO role in August 2011 after Jobs’ passing, Apple was at its peak, with a commendable lead over rivals. FORTIFICATION—albeit from a lofty position—was the order of the day. Starting from day one, there were those who questioned Cook’s ability to maintain Apple’s market position and its famously imaginative product pipeline. But Cook never claimed, or wanted, to be Jobs. His distinct leadership qualities—pragmatic thinking, reserved style, collaborative approach, and disciplined management—not only helped keep Apple healthy, but also took the company to a more mature phase in its evolution.

Under Cook, Apple has transitioned into ATTACK mode, bringing to market a more diverse set of products in response to consumer demand. It is also adopting a more open, flexible philosophy in its product development and its dealings with the outside world. Cook has demonstrated that he is not afraid to admit mistakes—apologizing for the Apple Maps rollout—but he is also not afraid to fight for what he believes to be right, as the recent standoff with the FBI over iPhone encryption shows.

Mary Barra, CEO, GM: Mary Barra inherited GM, the world’s third-largest car company, in 2013, when the company had rebounded from its 2009 government-funded bankruptcy, but was still struggling to remake itself in the face of stiff competition both from domestic and foreign carmakers. A 33-year veteran of the company, Barra had a reputation for being a consensus builder and a team player. Barra demonstrated some of the most crucial traits of a FORTIFICATION CEO, focusing on increasing operational efficiencies, cutting down bureaucracy, and “[bringing] order to chaos,” in the words of former CEO Dan Akerson.

Barra’s transition to ATTACK CEO mode arguably began nine months into her tenure, when she face the Chevrolet Cobalt ignition-failure scandal head on, owning the issue and using it as a way to transform the decision-making process within the company. Needing the company to pivot out of the sales torpor that had led to the 2009 bankruptcy, Barra shifted from Fortification to Attack and sought to transform, via cultural change, the quality of the automobiles GM produced. Thanks to Barra’s efforts, the company began to recapture market share.

Now, three years after Barra took the helm, she is credited with changing GM from a slow-moving, bureaucratic giant to a nimble disruptor—she has been operating effectively as a GENESIS CEO. One of Barra’s most notable accomplishments has been the development of the world’s first truly affordable, long-range electric car. In doing so, she claimed an important lead in a field crowded with highly nimble start-ups. In the past few months, Barra has invested in the ride-hailing app Lyft, with the goal of introducing self-driving cars to the service. She has also acquired a software start-up called Cruise Automation and announced that she “intends for GM to be the first in introducing fully autonomous technology.”

Here’s the multibillion-dollar question:

How can companies tell which kind of CEO they will actually need?

We’ve put together the following diagnostic questions to help companies think about which business context might match their strategic needs:


  • Are your markets stable and likely to remain so?
    − Think Attack or Fortification. Depending on the particulars of the situation, the optimistic forward motion of Attack CEOs or the collaborative stability of Fortification CEOs each have advantages—but companies should ensure their choice is capable of recognizing Genesis moments.
  • Are you operating in a “shark” industry—one where companies must keep moving forward or risk dying off?
    − Think Attack. Attack CEOs’ combination of an optimistic approach and strong analytical sense is highly conducive to both initiating and tracking the progress of continued forward momentum.
  • Is your market in the process of being disrupted, or does it seem ripe for disruption?
    − Think Genesis or Fortification. Companies in this situation must at bare minimum protect themselves, but increasingly also most “eat themselves or be eaten”—they must strike out into new markets as they are forced by disruptive competitors (or other paradigm-shifting developments, such as regulatory changes) to abandon old ones.
  • Is your business under cost pressure, or facing a crisis?
    − Think Fortification. Fortification CEOs’ pragmatism and diplomacy are absolutely vital when a business is “looking into the abyss.” Their balanced approach can be tremendously comforting to alarmed stakeholders, while their ability to thoughtfully prioritize is central to informed decisions about business efficiencies.
  • Have competitive threats become more urgent?
    − Your approach to risk matters. Depending on your company’s level of risk aversion, any of the three CEO types may be appropriate. Under threat, riskaverse companies are well matched to Fortification CEOs, who will work to build consensus around an approach to defend the company’s position. Highly risk-friendly companies, in contrast, will choose to step out of their currently competitive markets and into new ones by choosing a Genesis CEO, who will naturally point the compass in new directions (and will not be swayed by naysayers). Most companies in the middle of the risk spectrum, though, will still be well-served by Attack CEOs, whose strong resilience in the face of difficult odds can be inspiring in moments of competitive threat.


  • Is your company culture truly fluid and nimble?
    − Consider a Genesis CEO. Their abstract and even iconoclastic thinking can produce extraordinary results within companies willing to move in nontraditional directions.
  • Does your company’s culture emphasize quickly racking up concrete “wins”?
    − Think Attack. Genesis CEOs’ lack of emphasis on conventional achievement metrics will cause dissonance, and Fortification CEOs’ moderate approach can frustrate those with a greater sense of urgency.
  • Is global expansion a priority?
    − Think Attack. Not only are Attack CEOs psychologically better suited to cross-border buildouts, but they are also statistically more likely than their counterparts to have already made leaps such as working internationally or switching industries.



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.

MELISSA SWIFT is the Thought Leadership Architect for the RRA Center for Leadership Insight. She is charged with shaping and bringing to market the Center’s intellectual property. She is based in New York City.

ERIN MARIE CONKLIN is a member of the RRA Leadership & Succession practice. She supports assessment programs that lead to effective hiring decisions, leadership development, and cultural integration. She is based in Atlanta.

JACOB MARTIN is a member of the RRA Leadership & Succession practice. He creates assessment analytics that facilitate effective hiring decisions, supports culture fit analyses, and assists in the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion practice. He is based in Atlanta.

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Men and Women for Their Time: The Three Types of CEOs and the Fine Art of Choosing the Right Type