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Houston companies looking for a new CEO must decide where exactly to look

When companies plan to restructure, it makes a difference if the new CEO is hired from inside or outside. Pexels

Star Co. is a hot mess. The business is bloated and sprawling. Its stock is tanking. Profits are down. It's clearly time for a new CEO.

But where to look — inside the company or outside? It's a decision every restructuring company faces.

Cenovus Energy tapped an outsider in 2017. General Electric, the same year, went with a longtime insider. Though it's too soon to know yet for sure, which one likely made the right choice?

Rice Business emeritus professor Robert E. Hoskisson, with coauthors Shih-chi Chiu, then at Nanyang Technological University (now at the University of Houston), Richard A. Johnson of University of Missouri, Columbia and Seemantini Pathak of University of Missouri-St. Louis, set out for an answer: Where is the best place for a restructuring company to get its next CEO?

According to conventional wisdom and some past research, change is more likely under an outside CEO. He or she can start fresh, armed with a greater mandate to shake things up.

Recent evidence, though, suggests that outsiders may actually have more trouble succeeding. That's because they lack the institutional knowledge to make the most informed choices, and the existing relationships needed to ease change with minimal pain. Insiders, this research shows, have the advantage of key "firm-specific" knowledge on everything from customers to suppliers to workforce composition.

To pin down an answer on whether it's better to stay inside or go outside, Hoskisson's team decided to look at corporate divestiture — asset sales, spinoffs, equity carve-outs — as a proxy for overall strategic change. (It's already well documented that a new CEO makes organizational changes such as personnel changes and culture shifts.)

Next, they distinguished between scale and scope. The scale of a divestiture reflects magnitude: How many units were sold? The scope reflects diversification portfolio adjustment: Does the company have fewer business lines?

Focusing on 234 divestitures at U.S. firms that voluntarily restructured between 1986 and 2009, the authors defined a new inside CEO as having been in that role two or fewer years, and with the company previously for more than two years. They defined a new outside CEO as someone who had been at the company for a maximum of two years in any role.

Heading into the analysis, the researchers expected they would reach different conclusions for scale vs. scope. And the results were just that.

New inside CEOs, they found, did carry out more divesture activities than new outside CEOs. Not having as much inside knowledge, the outside CEO was more likely to prefer a simpler divesture plan, one that didn't require evaluating each unit or asset. Instead, the professors hypothesized, an outsider was more likely to follow investors' general preferences about firm strategy.

"When a higher magnitude of corporate divestures is required, internal successors are more astute than external successors in accomplishing this objective," the researchers write. On the other hand, when a company wants to shrink the diversified scope of a business portfolio, "external successors are more likely to bring their firms to a more focused position."

The researchers also suggested future lines of study about new CEOs and strategic change. What happens when firms want to buy and sell at the same time? Does the CEO selection process itself affect restructuring scale and scope? And does an inside chief executive who won a power struggle against a predecessor perform differently than an inside CEO named in orderly succession planning?

In the meantime, the findings are clear. If your corporate board is hunting for a new CEO, it may pay to go for the fresh face. But depending on your goals, your best option may also be a top executive sitting at a desk a few steps away.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Robert E. Hoskisson is the George R. Brown Emeritus Professor of Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

Without trust, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down, according to this Rice University research. Pexels

While U.S. soldiers battled in Vietnam, inside the White House, President Lyndon Johnson grew increasingly suspicious of those closest to him. The legendary political dealmaker now believed that any opposition to the war was part of a conspiracy against him; aides who questioned his policy might be part of it. According to research using newly available interviews and telephone transcripts, Johnson's distrust may have been triggered by the very experience of being in power.

But how, exactly? In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Marlon Mooijman and a team of colleagues delve deeply into the interaction of power and trust, seeking answers about when and why wielding power degrades leaders' belief in those around them.

The question has deep implications not only in politics, but also in business. "Managers must trust employees' willingness to comply with instructions and keep the company's best interest in mind," Mooijman notes. Without that trust, past research shows, workplace productivity, reciprocity and cooperation break down. Leaders who successfully craft trusting bonds with their coworkers and employees, on the other hand, are more effective than those who don't.

To learn why leaders might abandon that trust, Mooijman's team set up four studies. First, though, they had to establish a working definition of trust. Trust, they proposed, is the willingness to be vulnerable to another party's actions, based on the expectation that the other party will perform a specific action important to the truster — even without the truster's ability to monitor or control the activity. Essential to a trusting relationship: the expectation of the other party's goodwill, and the willingness to expose themselves to possible exploitation if that goodwill fails.

Whether you work in an indie coffee shop or a giant software company, most workers can name a leader who lacks that kind of trust. Many also have had the good luck of a leader who isn't lacking in that department. The difference between such managers, Mooijman's team found, may be the stability of their power.

There are plenty of reasons for wanting to keep power, obviously. In relationships, power holders are able to disregard others' wishes and pursue their own. Within the individual, power boosts self-esteem and encourages behaviors such as expressing amusement and happiness. Less obvious, however, is the effect of fearing a loss of power. Leaders whose power feels unstable experience this physically, with changes in heart rate and blood pressure. They have a heightened awareness of colleagues they perceive as threats, and are more prone to divide coworkers and disrupt their alliances.

When power holders or leaders perceive their power to be unstable, it's that prospect of power loss that erodes their trust in those around them, even helpful and often unsuspecting colleagues. So strong is this effect that it occurs even when the loss of power comes with an economic benefit, Mooijman notes. "Unstable power decreases trust," the team found, "regardless of whether we provided participants with a justification of their unstable position."

To reach their conclusions, Mooijman's team first surveyed 206 participants assembled through Amazon's Mechanical Turk software. Each participant was randomly assigned a power ranking (high or low) and asked to imagine being a VP of sales at a mid-sized firm. Some were told that as part of a productivity initiative they would be reassigned to other divisions. The participants were then asked to rank their perception of their power at their firm and their perception of their job stability there. Regardless of whether their job reassignment was explained or not, the researchers found, the participants who perceived their jobs — that is, their power — to be unstable showed more mistrust of their coworkers.

A final study, a field experiment with real life managers and subordinates, reinforced these findings. Managers in positions of relatively high power who perceived their jobs were unstable were more prone to voice distrust about their subordinates.

While instability is built into political careers, Mooijman's findings have practical implications in other industries. For example, the common practice of moving workers between departments, meant to build insight and productivity, may backfire. Instead of strengthening team spirit, the strategy will likely foment distrust. Similarly, at high levels of power, emphasizing job instability with tactics such as high-stakes, winner-take-all performance metrics might be counterproductive.

Power doesn't always erode trust, the researchers found. Leaders who felt their power was secure didn't show the same level of suspicion as those who felt their roles were insecure. But when power seems fragile, the research revealed, even the most seasoned leaders are prone to abandon trust in their colleagues and see work as a battlefield.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Marlon Mooijman is an assistant professor in the management department (organizational behavior division) at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.