Looking good, performing better

Has the time come for boards of directors to rely on a candidate’s facial structure when selecting a new CEO? According to Margaret ...

Has the time come for boards of directors to rely on a candidate’s facial structure when selecting a new CEO? Perhaps.

LookinggoodperformingbetterGeorgina Peters highlights the results of a recent study done by London Business School’s Margaret Ormiston and two other professors that connected the facial width-to-height ratio of CEOs and their organisational performance. It’s time to face some new facts.

The advantages of certain physical attributes in the workplace are well known. The most common traits that have been shown to provide advantages to those blessed with them are height and good looks. For some years, researchers have been trying to measure how much truth is in this commonly accepted belief.

For example, according to one Harvard University study, men who are at least six feet tall make an average salary of $5,525 more than their shorter counterparts. According to another study that polled half of the Fortune 500 companies, on average, male CEOs were three inches taller than the typical man. When it comes to good looks, a Yale study found that, in the US in particular, good-looking workers on average earn a lifetime total of $230,000 more than those with below-average looks; and attractive men earn nine per cent more than unattractive men.

It would appear that beauty is in the eye of the paymaster. The question is, however, whether such differences in personal attributes also make a difference in job performance. While these traits do seem to enhance one’s self-image — and leadership success is often connected to such psychological characteristics, research has not yet identified any objective physical traits of leaders that could be used to predict their organisational performance. Well, now one aspect of appearance has been carefully researched and proven to make a difference: facial structure.

The proof is in the profits

In an article for the December 2011 issue of Psychological Science, Margaret E. Ormiston, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, along with Elaine M. Wong and Michael P. Haselhuhn of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, examined pictures of CEOs and found that there was a correlation between performance and facial structure. Their article, ‘A face only an investor could love: CEOs’ facial structure predicts their firms’ financial performance’, revealed that CEOs with wider faces have better-performing companies than CEOs who have longer faces.

The facial structure the professors utilised is a measurement based on bone structure; that is, the facial width-to-height ratio (WHR): the distance between the outer edges of the cheekbones in relation to the distance between the brow and upper lip. For this study, only men were considered because this relationship between face shape and behaviour has only been found to apply to males.

The authors, aware that previous research had identified socially undesirable correlations of high facial WHR (such as aggression and untrustworthiness), were interested in finding out more about the socially beneficial correlates of facial WHR. They hypothesised that one positive correlation of men’s facial WHR might be leadership performance. They note that their reasoning “was based on research demonstrating that aggressive behaviour aimed at dominating other individuals or obtaining a resource is often associated with feelings of power, and … demonstrated that men’s facial WHR is indeed positively associated with a psychological sense of power.”

This, they concluded, was important because “powerful people tend to view their external environment optimistically, to note opportunities and to focus on the big picture rather than the details. High-power people are also more likely than low-power people to attend to task-relevant information and to engage in behaviours that are consistent with currently held goals.” All of which, they add, are characteristics that “have been associated with effective executive leadership and, often, increased organisational success.” Thus, they further hypothesised that organisations headed by male leaders with greater facial WHRs would achieve superior organisational performance.

Their research involved a thorough analysis of photos of chief executives of such major firms as General Electric, Hewlett Packard and Nike, covering 55 publicly traded Fortune 500 companies in all. The authors noted that the firms in their sample “represented a range of industries, including computer manufacturing, transportation and retail; on average, the firms had generated $38 billion in sales and had 119,684 full-time employees.” When it came to firm performance, they used return on assets (ROA) for 2003–2004 as a measure of performance, noting that they obtained that data through Standard & Poor’s Compustat database. They also were careful to statistically control for firms’ financial performance from 1996–2002.

A face to love?

The analysis of the data collected showed that leaders with a higher WHR did indeed achieve superior financial performance, but they also found that the characteristics of leadership teams could moderate this relationship. Specifically, they note that the “relationship between CEOs’ facial WHR and firms’ performance was stronger for firms whose leadership teams demonstrated lower levels of cognitive complexity.” When firms had more cognitively complex teams in charge of decision-making (that is, when decisions were made more collectively and systematically), powerful leaders had less opportunity to exert their authority. In other words, “Decision-making dynamics within such leadership teams have a powerful influence on organisational outcomes.”

In thinking about these findings, it is important to remember those other studies that have shown that men with high facial WHRs may be aggressive and untrustworthy in interpersonal interactions. The authors of this study, however, believe that their research “suggests that, at a societal level, organisational success may compensate for individual transgressions.” Therefore, they conclude: “CEOs with high facial WHRs may truly have a face only an investor could love.”

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