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27 Jun 2012 Back

Character v. Experience – Recruiting Good Leaders

EVENT REVIEW: When hiring leaders “we all have a systematic bias towards prior work experience and do not place enough emphasis on character attributes.”  explained  Jeff Anderson, Associate Dean for Leadership Development at Chicago Booth at a recent seminar called ‘What Makes a Good Leader’ for HR professionals at Booth’s London campus. 

Focusing on work experience is “very seductive” because there is a laundry list of a leader’s previous accomplishments that is tangible and easily read off of a CV. 

The problem with solely relying on prior work experience when hiring a leader is that there are significant limitations to this.  Anderson describes three arguments against work experience:

  1. Chance and circumstance – How much of the leader’s past accomplishments were purely due to luck?  Is it possible that they were running the business during a major boom in the economy?  Was it the leader’s decisions that led the company to doing so well or was it market conditions.
  2. Has the leader learned – Has the leader actually gained any new knowledge from their past events?
  3. Transition skills – Can a leader put their skills into action and lead a company through a transition? What is to say that what worked in the past will work in the future?

Instead of placing so much faith in experience, Anderson recommends focusing on a leader’s character attributes when hiring.  Referencing a study by Robert Hogan, he went on to explain that the “causes of derailment” for managers are generally due to behavioural issues.  Anderson mentioned that when leaders reach the very top of the organizational hierarchy, they are subject to constant pressure with no feedback from anyone.  This leads to the importance of a leader’s attributes and how they cope when faced with these high-stress situations.


The main outcomes of the workshop were to recognize the characteristics of great leaders, gain some general insight on leadership, and to learn how Chicago Booth approaches leadership development.  During the seminar, it became apparent that Booth’s programs on leadership development are less lecture-based and much more interactive in nature.

At the start of the seminar, participants were put into groups and given the task of coming up with an equation that would define leadership.  This activity generated lists of character traits that groups thought were important for a leader to have.  Immediately after this, Anderson described a scenario in which a large company was looking to hire a new CEO.  The groups were asked to act as the hiring committee and come up with five important criteria in choosing the CEO.  All groups listed previous experience, or something similar, at the top of their lists.  Anderson proceeded to give his debrief and highlighted the bias, inherent in most of us, to focus too much on prior work experience. 

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