The Professional Triumph of the Firstborns

from The Atlantic

When corporate boards pick out new CEOs, they scrutinize candidates’ qualifications, studying their performance in previous jobs and vetting their academic credentials. But a recent study suggests they might want to look even further back in the histories of corporate hopefuls: CEOs’ experiences in childhood seem to shape what kind of leaders they grow up to be.

The study—co-authored by the University of Chicago’s Todd Henderson and Florida State University’s Irena Hutton—looked at more than 650 CEOs’ birth order, family size, and history of childhood trauma, as well as their parents’ occupations and socioeconomic standing. This information covered a range of CEOs who held their positions in the ’90s, ’00s, and ’10s, and was assembled from a smattering of sources, including newspapers, biographies, trade publications, and alumni magazines.

More here.


4 Responses to The Professional Triumph of the Firstborns

  1. Kathleen Watts September 6, 2019 at 4:35 pm #

    In capitalist societies like in the United States, companies are always looking for ways to make more money. Staying where you are and being content is not necessarily the goal. Therefore, CEOs who may be more willing to take risks are ideal. While taking risks is often scary, especially when you’re talking about the loss of millions of dollars, it can incredibly be important when moving your company up is your first priority. The need for companies to keep making more and more money drives questions like the one posed in this article: how does homelife affect someone’s ability to be a great CEO? Questions about nature vs. nurture aren’t necessarily new, but bringing them into the business world certainly will have its benefits, and possibly some downfalls. On one hand, this research will definitely help companies broaden their view of what a good CEO looks like. Often, people think of CEOs as men who grew up rich and from then on had a leg up in the game. They had access to better education, more opportunities, and a good home life. However, as this article states, that is no longer the exact ideal. The person that they put forward, someone who was not as affluent growing up and maybe suffered some form of trauma, would be willing to take more risks. Like I stated before, risk assessment is incredibly important when holding a CEO-like position if you want to make more money and grow your business. On the other hand, however, thinking like this might lead corporate boards down the wrong path. While it is important for companies to know what type of person would be best to hold certain positions, they can’t pigeonhole themselves too much. Sometimes looking for the “perfect CEO” isn’t going to get you where you want to be. A lot goes into to picking someone to hold these positions, and not everyone fits into this mold. Many business owners take risks, even though they grew up rich. Similarly, many older siblings fail to be as good as this article thinks they should be. From my experience, despite being the youngest in my family, I will be the first to graduate from college. I’m also the only one that has an idea of what they want to do with their lives. The same is true for many of my friends. In this case, families like mine are the exception. Still, if questions like these are taken too seriously, companies will fail to see the benefits of hiring a younger sibling or someone with a good home life. Also, leadership can be taught, and is in school systems throughout America. Now more than ever, leadership is one of the most important words to college admission boards, whether or not the applicant is the oldest sibling or went through emotional trauma. I don’t deny that this research is interesting and important, I just think it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

  2. Alyssa Lackland September 6, 2019 at 5:36 pm #

    Overall, this article studies the concept of how a CEO should be picked in comparison to how they are actually picked. The author, Joe Pinsker breaks into the psychology based idea that people’s abilities and personalities are shaped from various factors in their childhood upbringing. With this in mind, should a CEO be picked based on their previous job experience, history with the company..etc. OR be picked based on knowledge the employer can gain about the candidates’ childhood? After reading the article, I came to think that there should be a mix of the two methods because there are special case circumstances with certain people and companies. For example, say a candidate is running for an executive position at IBM and happen to have suffered terrible abuse as a child but overcame their struggles. Before applying for the job at IBM, this individual worked in successful roles for other companies and went to a great college. When this person goes to interview at IBM and the interviewer asks “tell me about your family history” they will already have one strike against them, since there will be few positive things to discuss as well as the fear that there is underlying family trauma. However, this can also be viewed as success story when the interviewer listens to how this person overcame and sees their top notch credentials. One problem I see with seeking information about candidates childhoods’ is not everybody is willing to share and, legally, do not have to share certain information. So go back to the IBM scenario- say the person who suffered childhood abuse did not share this information because they never overcame the abuse. This person gets the job and begins treating the people they are now in charge of poorly; the office dynamic is negatively affected. This hypothetical is where gathering former ‘classic resume’ information from previous employers is valuable.

  3. Samuel Kihuguru September 13, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

    Staff writer Joe Pinsker presents an interesting addition to the rigorous modern interview and selection criterion a number of corporate CEO’s must undergo, that shows the link between family background, professional practice and decision-making in the work space. I found this article very interesting, because while I myself am the firstborn to three other siblings, I had not realized that there were certain traits unique to this family role that play out in the business setting. Characteristics such as responsibility with managing a household and the rift between risk-averse judgments when it comes to the family business vs. the hunt for opportunities crafting into college as the forerunner, bring the question, “Tell me more about your family background,” into perspective. However, while it is increasingly necessary for CEO’s to be reviewed based on non-traditional criteria like their personalities and their experience with industry turmoil, the elements of their family background should not outshadow the potential that their work experience and referenced work-life ethics have to offer. By the time a CEO has been approved into the interview and selection phase, there has been a plethora of acceptable and recognized qualifications that set them apart from the general pool of applicants. Using fundamentals of their family background, such as childhood trauma or the “firstborn experience”, should only be a front to understand the motives and driven path of the applicant as a person. Risk-aversion and the decisions made with company spending should be assessed by this criteria with a grain of salt. The intricacies of their background might also be too overwhelming for a 5-minute presentation window. For example, someone who initially describes themselves as the last-born with successful parents, would be intuitively undermined before he/she thinks to present their story of successive defeat and victory in a time when loans to pay off his/her older siblings’ college debt riveted his family’s quality of life and made him a strategic opportunist in a home with aging economic dependents. This is still, however, an interesting platform to use to assess the work-life abilities of CEO candidate, but it must be understood in the realm of its implications.

  4. Nicole Shubaderov September 14, 2019 at 12:29 pm #

    Most people’s goals in life are to become successful in life. In the business world, becoming a CEO is something that people try to achieve. The article above explains how corporate boards, when deciding who to promote/hire to become a CEO, should use the applicant’s work experience and academic credentials as well as looking into the applicant’s childhood. This all came from a study conducted by Henderson and Hutton, which studied the correlation between a CEO’s current position as a CEO with their childhood experiences, traumas, socioeconomic standing, etc. It was found that those individuals who were firstborn or an only child in the family had a higher chance of becoming a CEO than those who were not. Although this seems very impractical and, in a way, very unbelievable, this isn’t supposed to be an exact science. But it is a correlation that was noticed in a sample study that was taken over many years that allowed for this inference to be created. Supposedly, according to many people, this study seems to have accurately depicted why firstborns and only children end up getting these managerial positions. Based on the facts for why this may occur, I completely agree with the study. One of the reasons why I agree with the study is because I am the eldest child in my family and I have a natural knack for wanting to always take control or be the advisor of things, as well as myself organizing events and tasks around the house. This is even shown in my work at the YMCA because I always tend to be the individual who runs the pool deck when my boss is not around because I enjoy myself controlling the success and organization of pool deck. I do not think that my parents gave me a lot of head-on-attention as the article expressed contributes to such managerial behavior, but I feel that what lead me to this point is the fact that I am the eldest and I know I have to be successful to better my life. That is why I need to put more than 100% of my effort into things to obtain the result I wanted–or at least a very close one. None of my family members are successful, and to me, that makes my success much harder. I do not know what will get me to the top and I don’t have the connections that other families do, which is why my success path will be a trial and error path unlike those who already have formulas that make their success path much easier.

    Finally, on the topic of the firstborn having a personality similar to their parents, I agree with that. I have the determination to achieve great things like my father as well as his managerial attitude, but I also have my mother’s stubbornness and very forceful attitude that lets people know she wants things DONE. The mix of these personalities helps me accomplish many things that I want in life. For one, I finally got the raise that I deserved and without these personality traits, I don’t know if I ever would have been able to get it. Then, I can manage my time and resources and complete household tasks effectively as well as my homework. Finally, I can properly organize group objects in a way that gives everyone a task that is of equal importance and allows for a sort of checks and balance system between each person. Meaning that it’s not an “I finish my assignment and I am done” sort of thing but everyone checks over the next person’s work and makes sure that they have everything done properly. Although this correlation may not be perfect and not every person in the world will end up becoming a CEO that has these characteristics, the study shows a new way of choosing candidates when looking to fill managerial positions at a corporation.

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