Study examines CEO photos and success

YSU faculty members Helen Han and Peter Chen stand before the photos they used for their study on CEOs and leadership.

Research by YSU business faculty Helen Han and Peter Chen focuses on how people judge CEOs by their photos.

Think you can spot a top CEO just by looking at an annual report photo?

Meet the new way to judge a book by its cover – a method that two YSU professors have been researching and one that might even help businesses make better investment decisions.

Helen Han, assistant professor of Management, and Peter Chen, associate professor of Accounting and Finance, along with Peter Harms of the University of Nebraska, are researching if leadership styles and company success can be accurately predicted just by looking at CEO annual report photos.

The study also incorporates a cultural twist: American students were asked to analyze and rate photos not of American leaders, but of Chinese CEOs.

“I’ve always been interested in cross-cultural studies,” said Han, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Only 0.3 percent of leadership research has been devoted to leadership in China, so it’s an emergent topic of interest. This study tests whether a prior understanding of a culture’s norms is needed to accurately predict an effective leader.”

A paper detailing the research, “Recognizing Leadership at a Distance: A Study of Leader Effectiveness Across Cultures,” will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies.

For the study, the team asked 105 students from a Midwestern university to rate 71 Chinese CEOs based solely on their 2008 English-language annual report photographs. The participants rated each CEO on his or her personality and effectiveness as a leader.

Students rated the characteristics of leaders and whether or not they thought they would be successful. Han, Chen and Harms then matched the responses to see what personality traits the participants linked to successful leadership.

The ratings were finally compared against actual statistics of each company’s financial performance.

The team found a general consensus of CEO personality ratings. Participants also linked similar personality characteristics to success – those such as intelligence and dominance. The only characteristic that related to statistical company success, however, was a willingness to take risks.

“The American students thought effective leaders would be the ones with authoritative characteristics,” said Han. “But the opposite was true. The leaders the participants described as risk-takers were actually the ones whose companies were most successful.”

The authoritative, more conservative leadership style the participants believed to be a successful trait describes an old style of Chinese leadership, Han explained. In recent years, this old style has transformed into a more global model that emphasizes creativity and risk-taking – two attributes the American participants did not recognize.

So while results of the study show that photos can be used to predict personality traits of leaders, this skill may only be useful if a person has a prior cultural understanding.

Han said the study offers guidance to business leaders who are seeking partnerships with Chinese companies and gives them a new tool to use to supplement more traditional assessments.

The team plans to look into other cross-cultural and investment studies in the future.

Han has published a paper in one of the top-tier journals in Management, the Journal of Organizational Behavior. The paper was nominated for the Best Paper Award for papers in 2009. Another paper of hers that was published in the International Journal of Conflict Management in 2010 was selected as one of the two sample articles by Emerald Group Publishing Ltd. and International Journal of Conflict Management in 2011 “based on the frequency of downloads and high quality of the paper.” She has also received a University Research Council Grant, The Emerging Market Initiative Research Grant, as well as YSU Research Professorship.