A Different Perspective on the Nonfamily vs. Family CEO Debate

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Rüveyda Kelleci of Hasselt University, Frank Lambrechts of Hasselt University, Wim Voordeckers of Hasselt University, and Jolien Huybrechts of Maastricht University. They recently published an article in the Family Business Review entitled “CEO Personality: A Different Perspective on the Nonfamily Versus Family CEO Debate,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the inspiration for conducting this research:]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

Current family business research on family firm CEOs has mainly focused on the characteristic of “family kinship” to explain the differences and the performance effects of nonfamily vs. family CEOs; however, such research has neglected other aspects of CEOs that may better explain their behavior. Indeed, we argue that the strategy and success of the family firm critically depends on the leadership behavior of the firm’s CEO, which is largely driven by CEO personality. Given that CEO personality has been largely unexplored in the family business domain, we wanted to address this substantial knowledge gap. Therefore, based on a unique, hand-collected dataset, we examined the personality traits of nonfamily and family CEOs in privately held Belgian family firms.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Our research is one of the only studies to empirically examine the very hard to come by data on personality of family firm CEOs. Therefore, our study can serve as a foundation for future research in this unusual, yet important area. We offer a fresh new perspective on the debate about nonfamily vs. family CEOs and thereby alter the way in which differences between the two CEO types are commonly viewed. We argue that family kinship alone cannot fully explain or predict the differences between nonfamily and family CEOs and that we must incorporate their personalities. We find significant differences between nonfamily and family CEOs with regard to nine personality traits: independent minded, democratic, data rational, behavioral, detail conscious, conscientious, relaxed, worrying, and trusting. The findings suggest a very balanced personality profile for nonfamily CEOs and a rather strong-willed personality for family CEOs. Our findings also reveal several personality traits of nonfamily CEOs that are significantly associated with firm financial performance. Surprisingly, for family CEOs, we find no such indications. Moreover, our results call into question some assumptions in the literature about how family CEOs and nonfamily CEOs differ and provide a deeper understanding of prior work. We hope our study will become an important springboard for future research on CEO personality in family firms.

What advice would you give to new scholars and incoming researchers in this particular field of study?

One approach to advance our knowledge of family firm CEOs is to integrate family business research with insights from research on personality. This can help family business scholars to deepen and/or question current assumptions and predictions about differences in behavior between family and nonfamily CEOs. Moreover, as prior research has found that the success of the family firm reflects CEO personality, we argue that a deeper understanding of the personality traits of CEOs in family firms will further the debate on the conduct and performance of family firms. The findings of our study provide numerous fruitful avenues for future research.

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