Brains Trust: The not your fault edition

If you’re just starting out on your career as a chief executive, the odds are you will never scale the heights reached by those who started their careers 10 years ago.

In a paper published this year by American National Bureau of Economic Research, researchers Antoinette Schoar and Luo Zuo found that CEOs whose careers start during a recession take less time to become CEOs, but over the course of their careers they receive lower compensation, end up heading smaller firms, and are less likely to rise through the ranks.

These “recession CEOs” suffer, the study says, because their achievements are less visible to outsiders. As they do not oversee large expansions within their companies, they get fewer opportunities to switch jobs and firms. This lowers their bargaining power, which in turn, lowers their pay.

This isn’t due to their lower competency, the authors of the study point out.

“The fact that recession CEOs rise faster to the top than other CEOs seems to counter any questions about their underlying ability,” they write. “The results confirm that initial conditions in the managerial labour market have persistent results on shaping a CEO’s career path.”

The study also found “recession CEOs” have strikingly different management styles to “boom CEOs”.

They develop what is described as an “overall conservative” style. This has some good effects – they become better and more prudent financial managers – and some bad ones – like their relatively lower spend on research and development.

This conservative style also leads to their companies being more diversified, to experience less stock volatility, and also a lower return on assets.

These differences in management styles persist. “Recession CEOs have predictably different and more conservative management styles even several decades after starting their first jobs,” the study says, though the authors point out they can’t tell if this is because cautious people are more likely to be promoted during a recession, or if it’s due to managers developing these cautious approaches from having to lead a company through difficult times.

In the overall success part of the study, the researchers used a sample of 2,058 American CEOs, who were selected partly because the researchers were able to find complete career information for them. When it came to assessing managerial styles, the authors used a sample of 4,152 CEOs.


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