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Rice research reveals that narcissistic CEOs sabotage their firms

Research from a former Rice University professor linked the size of CEO signatures to ego. CEOs with big egos entered into more risky, unreliable deals. Pexels

You've just been named CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Your ego fills the room. The laws of gravity don't apply to you.

And naturally, you want to make an impact. So you pour money into mergers and acquisitions, and when you're not trying to acquire another firm, you guide company resources into research and development. You're a genius, and the world will soon be clinging to your every new product.

The only problem: your company will likely underperform. Research by former Rice Business visiting professor Sean Wang (now at Cox School of Business as SMU), along with Nicholas Seybert of the University of Maryland and Charles Ham of Washington University at St. Louis, reveals the high costs of an out of control CEO ego.

The researchers' first challenge was establishing who could legitimately be called a narcissist. What does the term mean, exactly? While there are varying definitions, Wang's team focused on narcissism as a basic personality trait rather than a mental illness. As a personality trait, narcissism is associated with entitlement, vanity, authority, and a sense of superiority.

To spot narcissists, the team took a novel approach: they examined their research subjects' signatures. Signature size turns out to be a handy measure for egos, because it doesn't require participants to answer direct questions about their personalities — and because participants are unlikely to know that ego can affect something as simple as a signature.

Just having a big ego, though, does not a narcissist make. To validate a link between a person's signature and narcissism, the researchers asked 53 graduate business students to provide their signatures by signing a document, and then to take a personality survey that measured narcissism. The findings documented that indeed there was a strong correlation between signature size and narcissism.

Next, the researchers obtained data from prior psychology research on employee perceptions of 32 technology-firm CEOs. Of the 24 CEOS for whom the researchers also had signature samples, they found a significant correlation between narcissism and signature size.

Armed with these findings, Wang and his colleagues were able to extrapolate the narcissistic traits of thousands of CEOs whose signatures were readily available on proxy statements and other corporate documents. The researchers ultimately studied 741 CEOs from 411 firms during the period between 1992 and 2015, corresponding to 6,361 firm-year observations with a median of eight fiscal years per CEO.

They found a pronounced behavior pattern. Firms led by narcissistic CEOs invested more in high-exposure areas such as research and development and mergers and acquisitions, but shied away from routine capital expenditures for day-to-day productivity. This trend was even more pronounced during periods of financial slack, suggesting that narcissistic CEOs prefer an aggressive management style whenever possible. Financial productivity delivered by these narcissistic CEOs in terms of profitability was lower than their less egotistic counterparts.

The research has multiple implications. Narcissistic leaders, past research shows, are prone to make bad decisions — in part because they are bad listeners. As a result, they often dominate the decision process without incorporating feedback or ideas from others. Ironically, they mistakenly perceive this behavior as a signal of competence and strong leadership.

To counter these bad habits, the researchers say, during periods of financial sluggishness investors and corporate boards should combat excessive narcissist-led investment by pushing for higher dividend payouts. Given that narcissistic CEOs overinvest in R&D, investors also need to closely monitor whether such investments represent real innovation or just vanity. Finally, boards of directors should be aware that narcissistic leaders tend to command higher salaries — and consider whether their CEO falls into this category, and is essentially getting higher pay for inferior performance.

In short, to really be as boss as they see themselves, narcissistic corporate leaders need to recognize their tendencies and rigorously check their egos. Boards, meanwhile, should closely monitor their CEO's priorities in directing firm resources. It could be the writing on the wall.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom.

Sean Wang is a former visiting assistant professor of accounting at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. He is now an assistant professor at Cox School of Business at SMU.

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Building Houston

 
 

From enlightening talks to anniversary celebrations, here's where you need to be in August. Getty Images

This month, Houstonians have yet another good batch of in-person and online innovation events — from Zoom panels to conferences — and you and your tech network need to know about them.

Here's a roundup of virtual events not to miss this month — like demo days, workshops, conventions, and more.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

August 4 — Bayou Startup Showcase

Join Rice University and the University of Houston to celebrate the launch of the newest startups from OwlSpark and RED Labs. The Eighth Annual Bayou Startup Showcase will have founders from Class 9 showcase their summer progress. Come listen to pitches, network and get a first look at Houston's newest startups.

The event is on Wednesday, August 4, at 6 pm. It's free and happening at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Rd). Click here to register.

August 5 — Ask-Me-Anything Event With Carin Luna-Ostaseski: Tackling Roadblocks as a Solopreneur

A Hello Alice alum and first-generation Cuban American, Carin Luna-Ostaseski has truly achieved the unexpected, launching her one-woman operation through crowdfunding and becoming one of the first Hispanic entrepreneurs in history to create a scotch whisky brand. During the virtual event, she'll answer all of your questions, offer tips on navigating uncharted territory in business, and share details on the newly launched Entrepreneurial Spirit Fund by SIA Scotch that's awarding $10,000 grants to small business owners of color.

The event is on Thursday, August 5, at 1:30 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 10 — FTE Show: Creating a Digitally Enabled Innovation Community that Works with Jon Lambert and Lawson Gow

The way entrepreneurial communities interact and collaborate today cannot keep pace with the ever increasing speed of innovation. What are best ways to leverage physical and virtual hub interactions to create a digitally enabled innovation community with that works? Join The Cannon Founder Lawson Gow and CEO Jon Lambert as they share specifics around what they are trying, where they are getting traction and where they are most challenged.

The event is on Tuesday, August 10, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 10 — HealthTech Beyond Borders

This online event created to offer business opportunities and global collaboration focused on innovation and technology in medicine between companies in Chile and the United States. Join the International Summit to explore the future and impact of new technologies in the health sector.

The event is on Tuesday, August 10. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 11 — Open Project Night: Building an Equitable, Inclusive and Resilient Houston

Impact Hub Houston is proud to bring you a monthly opportunity to come together to work on solutions for some of Houston's most pressing issues. Our city is full of changemakers across all ages, cultures, skillsets, and industries. This is your chance to conned and collaborate for the greater good.

The event is on Wednesday, August 11, at 5 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 11 — Women in AI USA: WaiACCELERATE 2021 Demo Day

Ethical leadership & business acceleration program, WaiACCELERAT USA, aims to bridge the gender gap in the industry and targets female innovators looking to start a business in the fields of AI, Machine Learning and Data Science. With the final Pitch Event "ACCELER-AI-TE!" organized in VR, we will celebrate 40+ impact and commercially-proof early-stage startups and their founders

The event is on Wednesday, August 11, at 6 pm. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

August 12-13 — EVOLVE 2021: How AI is Transforming Industry

Join industry leaders from the world's largest and most innovative companies for this 2-day hybrid event featuring both technical and business presentations focused on the real-world value of Artificial Intelligence. Evolve will provide a unique, interactive experience where you will learn from and engage with thought leaders from across North America.

The event is on Thursday, August 12, to Friday, August 13. It's free and happening at Houston Marriott Sugar Land and online. Click here to register.

August 17 — Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything with Wogbe Ofori

Are you an entrepreneur starting a new company? Recently moved your company to Texas? Want to find out how to connect with other entrepreneurs, mentors, and investors in the startup ecosystem? Join Capital Factory to hear an overview from experienced entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, investors, and community partners at Intro to Texas Startup Scene & Ask Me Anything. Get a chance to introduce yourself and ask any questions on entrepreneurship and other related topics.

The event is on Tuesday, August 17, at 2 pm. It's free and happening online Click here to register.

August 18 — Tips for Working with a Gen Z Intern

Ampersand CEO, Allie Danziger, will speak to business owners and founders on the benefits of hiring an intern for your growing business, and tips for managing a remote, or in person, intern. It has to be a lot more than just "getting coffee" in order to maximize the experience on both sides and Allie will talk through tips on clear communication, ideal assignments, best way to structure the relationship and more. She will answer attendees questions, live, and discuss real-life scenarios the aspiring professionals and business partners in Ampersand have faced.

The event is on Wednesday, August 18, at 11 am. It's free and happening at The Cannon (1334 Brittmoore Rd). Click here to register.

August 19 — LatinX in Tech presented by Accenture

Capital Factory is dedicated to increasing diversity in the tech community and making its co-working space an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds and identities. Attendees can look forward to a keynote address from a serial entrepreneur or investor, insightful discussion sessions, a startup showcase pitch competition, and informative panels.

The event is on Thursday, August 19, at noon. It's free and happening online Click here to register.

August 25 — The Cannon + Dell Pitch Party

Calling all member startups that are fundraising or are planning to open a round in 2021. The Cannon has partnered with Dell to host a virtual Pitch Party. Prizes will include up to $10k in Dell Equipment and the opportunity to pitch in the winners round later this year. If you would like to learn more and be considered to pitch, please fill out the application here.

The event is on Wednesday, August 25, at noon. It's free and happening online. Click here to register.

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