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The Price of Personality

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The stock market is no more predictable than the world around us.

Its volatility is no more apparent than in moments of crisis—from pandemics to trade wars. Some-thing as simple as a president’s tweet can send it soaring or plunging. Events and people matter on Wall Street, including CEOs of major firms, says Gary Thurgood, Utah State University assistant professor in the management department of the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.

Thurgood and three colleagues have demonstrated how CEOs appear to influence stock market confidence in their firms based on five specific personality traits—conscientiousness, neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, and openness. Qualities one can expect to find in all leaders, regardless of stock exchanges, who influence the value of their institutions, he says.

Even university presidents. How, for example, are public perceptions of USU President Noelle Cockett influencing donor contributions and student enrollment? Thurgood flashes a smile, “Well,” he says, diplomatically, “I’ve not been here that long.” Even so, he was willing to indulge the question long enough to offer a few initial impressions of the school’s 16th president. 5 traits of CEOs: Conscientiousness This is the most ideal trait for a leader to possess. These individuals demonstrate effective goal setting and keeping to schedules.; Neuroticism: On the opposite end of emotional stability is neuroticism, a trait not found in effective leadership.; Extroversion: This trait has a double-edged quality. It gets leaders in the door, but it also means they can be overdominant and risky.; Agreeableness Who does not like an agreeable person? This desirable trait, along with being personable, are found in USU's president.; openness A cousin of agreeableness is openness. The ability to listen and take in new ideas and suggestions is a highly favorable leadership trait.

“[Conscientiousness] is the one trait that we have found over the years to be the most ideal because it really does define a person who is dependable. They have that natural sense of, ‘I can’t let people down; I’m committed to this; I have to deliver.’” – Gary Thurgood

But first, the study, published in the Academy of Management Journal, involved nearly 3,000 CEOs of S&P 1500 firms between the years 1993 and 2015. In their report, they say there are two ways in which a person’s traits as a CEO can affect things. One is directly, when making decisions and taking actions that lead to greater or lesser stock risk. But there are other factors at play, almost on a subconscious level, by analysts and investors—those who are carefully watching the Tim Cooks of the corporate world, just as they did last fall when WeWork’s value plunged more than 80 percent under its now disesteemed cofounder and CEO, Adam Neumann. Without even knowing the Five Factor Personality model, investors seem to naturally gravitate to them when assessing CEOs—something that Thurgood and colleagues can statistically test for. So even in cases when a company may look promising by the numbers, investors sometimes see something else in a CEO, and think, “‘I don’t know. This person is kind of crazy half of the time, so I’m going to give myself a little wiggle room,’” Thurgood says.

Of the five main traits, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and extroversion were of particular interest to them. Of these three, conscientiousness was a real standout in terms of desirability among investors and analysts. This is the trait that most consistently influences stock risk perception and shareholder returns, he says.

“It is the one trait that we have found over the years to be the most ideal because it really does define a person who is dependable,” he says. “They have that natural sense of, ‘I can’t let people down; I’m committed to this; I have to deliver.’ And people who are more conscientious are more effective at setting goals and keeping the schedules and doing all those things that define habits of success.’”

One that can hurt returns is neuroticism—the opposite end of emotional stability. “That is generally something to avoid, though surprisingly a lot of people who are fairly neurotic are still successful,” Thurgood says. “They still rise to position, but have things to overcome.”

A third one, is extroversion—a double-edged quality. “While this trait doesn’t hurt you getting in the door, we have shown that there might be some negative effects because people who are more extroverted also tend to be more socially dominant—the loudest talkers who grab all the attention.”

Extroverted people in leadership roles tend to act in ways that garner the most public attention, such as making huge strategic acquisitions more for the media coverage than the betterment of the company. “A highly extroverted person is risky,” Thurgood says. “I would say the best leader is probably somewhere in the middle—not super extroverted but probably not super introverted either.” Related to this is narcissism, a more narrowly defined offshoot of extroversion.

“We learn that people who are narcissistic do tend to rise to the top a lot, and they leave a lot of damage in their wake—personal, relationship, and institutional damage.”

“We learn that people who are narcissistic do tend to rise to the top a lot, and they leave a lot of damage in their wake—personal, relationship, and institutional damage,” he says. “They are always right, never wrong. Leaders like this tend to not listen to others—even high-level advisors and others in their circle.” As a result, a company stock with a CEO like this would be more volatile and risky. “They’d get stuff done, and they kind of get some wins, but at the same time, have some bigger losses too.”

Of course, these same qualities can also inform and broaden understanding beyond a company’s stock value. The more that people understand the fundamental traits of those with whom they encounter, the better they are able to interact with them. A person who is not super conscientious, for example, might always be late in turning things in. That same person, however, may have many more other positive qualities. A boss who understands these qualities, good and bad, can work to help emphasize strengths and minimize weaknesses. An employee can use them to help understand and better respond to a boss showing these characteristics. Parents might recognize them in their children to help them better respond to their issues. Even faculty members dealing with a university president.

Thurgood says he has not seen Cockett in the news a lot over her nearly four years as president, which suggests to him that she is probably more on the introverted side than on the narcissistic end of the spectrum. “So I’d guess she doesn’t need attention that way and being in the limelight.” He also surmises that she is fairly agreeable and personable—being able to get along with people and not being confrontational and argumentative.

If one can attach a price to such a personality, that smile that comes so easily to her, just may be a million dollar one.

By John DeVilbiss
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