Is it okay to be a nice CEO?

As I take the CEO helm again with Shovels, I’ve been thinking more about what kind of CEO I want to be. Am I some visionary leader with all of the answers? A hard-nosed drill sergeant making sure we stick to our deadlines? A coder? A product whiz? Or the Chief Sales Officer?

I simply plan to be thoughtful and nice. Thoughtful makes sense. I should be thinking two or three steps ahead. Besides managing cash, the most obvious job of the CEO is to have a plan. Being thoughtful requires… thought. I think best when I write, so I’ve been blogging a lot more since I started Shovels. Being thoughtful makes it easier to talk to my team, potential customers, and investors. If I’m thoughtful enough, I’ll have already thought of all the answers when I’m asked smart questions. 

What about being nice? Why is that so high on my list? Some of my favorite entrepreneurs are nice CEOs. Many have raised hundreds of millions of dollars, taking their companies public and proving that investors like nice CEOs, too. One of them, the nicest CEO I know, recently sold his company for enough money to put $1M into his pocket. Pretty nice, eh?

Mean CEOs do well too. There’s the old news about bad-boy-CEO Travis Kalanick resigning from Uber and his company’s massive IPO but subsequent flop (alongside others in the ride-sharing market). However, for every Travis, there’s a Logan (CEO of Lyft) who is equal parts nice. 

Here are the good and bad points about being a nice CEO:

The Good 

  • Culture comes from the top. Nice CEOs yield nice cultures, which makes recruiting and retention much easier.
  • Nice CEOs get more favorable media coverage or at least avoid negative coverage. 
  • Nice CEOs, provided they’re meeting revenue expectations (see below), are less likely to be fired.
  • Customers like nice CEOs. I’ve always heard that Box’s enterprise customers loooove Aaron Levie, and he seems like a nice guy.

The Bad

  • Nice CEOs usually struggle with hard personnel decisions like layoffs. They are prone to make these tough calls too late in the game. (I was one of them.)
  • Nice CEOs may be unwilling to move aggressively against competition. They may be unwilling to be the bad guy in order to win a market, so they’re vulnerable to being undercut by CEOs willing to take the low road.
  • Similarly, nice CEOs can have difficulty negotiating on behalf of the company on vendor agreements, term sheets, and salaries. 
  • Nice CEOs tend to over-promote and over-pay their employees. They also are more prone to give in to requests for additional perks.
  • Nice CEOs tend to avoid conflicts, even when the conflict is important. This was not a problem for Steve Jobs.

The Analysis

I still favor the “nice CEO” model, but I’m biased. I can’t be any other way. Since being hired to be a CEO for a company that I didn’t start, I’ve been thinking a bit more about this question. Am I actually too nice? What does that even mean? Really, all that I or anyone else should be worried about is results. It’s the data that truly tells the story.

The problem with trying to be analytical about this is “niceness” is impossible to quantify. So I took it upon myself to look at the performance of 20 public companies and the Glassdoor reviews of the CEOs in the lifetime-ago pre-pandemic era.

Here’s the list of the top 10 best and worst CEOs in 2019 and a chart plotting their Glassdoor rating against their stock growth in 2019.

Top 10 Worst CEOs

  1. Micheal Kasbar (4% rating)  – World Fuel Services
  2. Mary Barra (6% rating) – General Motors: 
  3. Christopher Crane (8% rating) – Exelon
  4. Noel White (8% rating) – Tyson Foods
  5. James Gorman (9% rating) – Morgan Stanley
  6. A. James Teague (9% rating) – Enterprise Products Partners
  7. Richard Hume (9% rating) – Tech Data
  8. Stefano Pessina (23% rating) – Walgreen Boots Alliance
  9. Michael Tipsord (34% rating) – State Farm Insurance
  10. Larry Merlo (35% rating) – CVS Health

Top 10 Best CEOs

  1. Donald Layton (100% rating) – Freddie Mac
  2. Larry Page (100% rating) – Alphabet (Google)
  3. Albert Bourla (100% rating) –  Pfizer
  4. Richard Fairbank (99% rating) – Capital One Financial
  5. Hugh Frater (99% rating) – Fannie Mae
  6. Mark Zuckerberg (99% rating) – Facebook
  7. Michael Dell (97% rating) – Dell Technologies
  8. Kelcy Warren (97% rating) – Energy Transfer
  9. Satya Nadella (97% rating) – Microsoft
  10. Samuel Allen (96% rating) – Deere

Doing some unsophisticated statistics, I find a slightly positive correlation between Glassdoor rating and stock returns. The average 2019 return among the highly-rated (my proxy for “nice”) Glassdoor CEOs is 54%. The average for poorly rated (“mean”) CEOs is 31%. The Pearson correlation between the Glassdoor Rating and the 2019 stock return is 0.19.

Looking at the chart, you see some outliers that bring up my nice CEOs’ performance. It’s convenient in my analysis that Alphabet’s CEO at the time, Larry Page, scored 100% on Glassdoor. There’s also some noise here: employees are likely to rate a CEO poorly when stock is underperforming regardless of how nice or mean they are. 

However, to consider Larry Page for a bit, at least in public appearances, he seems like a legitimately nice guy. He’s one of the founders, a Stanford Ph.D. student who accidentally became a billionaire and had the leadership skills to ride the CEO seat to the top. If Larry Page was an asshole, I don’t think he would have made it as far.

My takeaway is this: I can be nice so long as I can deliver. More to the point, if being nice helps me deliver, then this is an easy answer: Be nice. 

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