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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.

Spaces plans to open a new location in Houston this month, Chevron Technology Ventures invests in autonomous vehicle tech, and more Houston innovation news. Courtesy of Spaces

A lot is happening in the Houston innovation ecosystem — so much that you may have missed a few key news items. Let's hit the highlights, shall we?

Applications are open for major health tech awards program that is coming to town, a Houston corporate venture fund doles out cash to self-driving cars, new coworking space to deliver, a diversity-focused partnership launches, and more Houston innovation news.

Chevron Technology Ventures invests in self-driving cars

Voyage is growing its fleet of self-driving vehicles with the help of a Houston corporate VC fund. Photo via voyage.auto

Silicon Valley's Voyage, a self-driving car technology company, closed its series B round at $31 million. Houston-based Chevron Technology Ventures contributed to the round.

The round's funds will go toward expanding the company's fleet of G2 autonomous vehicles in California and Florida, as well as introduce Voyage's G3 self-driving car, Oliver Cameron, co-founder and CEO at Voyage, writes in a release.

"Chevron has been supporting the public's transportation needs for over 100 years. As our customers' mobility needs and preferences change, we want to continue to be part of their journeys. Our investment in Voyage affirms this commitment," says Barbara Burger, CTV president, in a release. "We established the Future Energy Fund in 2018 with an initial commitment of $100 million to invest in breakthrough technologies that enable the ongoing energy transition. The fund looks for technologies that lower emissions and support low carbon value chains. Our investment in Voyage fits well within the objectives of the Future Energy Fund while also informing our perspective on the changing energy landscape."

Accenture to close out health tech challenge in Houston

accenture

The national challenge will conclude in Houston. Courtesy of Accenture

Applications are open for the fourth annual Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge and close on September 22. Finalists will present to judges from global health companies at one of two regional events — in Boston on Nov. 7 or in San Francisco on Dec. 5. The final judging event will take place in Houston on February 6, 2020.

"We look forward to this year's submissions as we continue to identify bold ideas from startups that deliver new solutions for health organizations to improve the lives of consumers, clinicians and employees," says Brian Kalis, managing director of digital health and innovation at Accenture, in a release. "Since its inception, the Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge has brought healthcare organizations and startups together to tackle the world's biggest health issues where we have received more than 2,200 applications, invited more than 90 startups to compete and who have benefitted from the guidance of nearly 1,000 executive judges from the healthcare industry."

The submission form, including additional details about the challenge's criteria, eligibility, and requirements, is available at: Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge-Health.

GotSpot wins pitch competition

Reda Hicks claimed the win at a military spouse pitch event. Trish Alegre-Smith/Military.com

Reda Hicks, who founded Houston-based GotSpot Inc., won a $15,000 check from the StreetShares Foundation and Samuel Adams' Brewing the American Dream at the Great American Military Entrepreneur at the Military Influencer Conference in Washington, D.C.

GotSpot is a website that allows for people with commercial space — a commercial kitchen, conference room, spare desks, etc. — to list it. Then, space seekers — entrepreneurs, nonprofits, freelancers, etc. — can rent it.

"This award is a game-changer for me," Hicks says to Military.com. "This will allow me to hire more incredible military spouses and help GotSpot on its path to go global."

Rice University launches new sports business course

Rice University

Rice University has a new sports business program. Photo courtesy of Rice University

Rice University, along with the Houston Texans, is introducing a new program for the university's sport management students. Pro Sports: Management is a course designed to teach the business side of the sports world.

"We are thrilled to partner with Rice University on a curriculum that will provide their best and brightest students with insight into the real-world opportunities and challenges facing today's sports teams," says Houston Texans President Jamey Rootes in a release from Rice. "This program is rather unique because our leading executives will work alongside Rice professors to teach current best practices in franchise management across every discipline. We believe that this type of practical industry exposure is the best way to prepare the next generation of leaders in the field of sports management and a valuable contribution to the level of professionalism within our industry."

The classes will be held weekly in the executive offices of the Texans. The course will cover ticketing, public relations, event management, human resources and more.

Spaces plans to open second coworking location in Houston

Spaces, an Amsterdam-based coworking space company that entered the Houston market with a lease in Kirby Grove announced in 2017, plans to open its newest location this month. Courtesy of Spaces

The new Spaces CityCentre One location is planned to open on Monday, September 30. It's the Amsterdam-based company's second coworking space in Houston, with a third already in the works. The first location was in Kirby Grove in 2017, and Spaces Galleria at Post Oak will be opening in the second quarter of 2020.

The CityCentre One location will have over 60,000 square-feet of workspace with perks, including a business club, dedicated desk space, private offices, and seven fully-equipped meeting rooms. Plus, the building is just steps away from CityCentre, a mixed-use development with restaurants, entertainment, housing, and more. Membership pricing starts at $111 a month at the new location.

Cemvita Factory receives more backing from oil and gas industry

Cemvita Factory Cemvita Factory

Houston-based Cemvita Factory, a biotech company that can mimick photosynthesis and convert CO2 into glucose and other substances, has received equity investment from BHP. The amount of the investment was not disclosed.

The investment will help Cemvita Factory continue to develop its biomimicry technology for oil and gas applications to reduce the volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

"This strategic investment fits well with BHP's vision of the future: reducing operational greenhouse gas emissions, reducing environmental impact and the development of low-emissions technology, including increased application of carbon capture, utilization and storage technology," says BHP's chief geoscientist, Laura Tyler, in a release.

Last month, Occidental Petroleum's low carbon subsidiary, Oxy Low Carbon Ventures LLC, announced it invested an undisclosed amount of funds into Cemvita Factory.

Two organizations join forces to promote diversity in the Houston Startup Scene

Impact Hub Houston and The Cannon have teamed up to grow programming and events surrounding diversity. Photo courtesy of The Cannon

In an effort to promote diversity and inclusion within the Houston innovation ecosystem, The Cannon and Impact Hub Houston have teamed up. The collaboration will drive programming and events geared at growing the conversation and resources for startups and entrepreneurs.

"One of Houston's best differentiating qualities is that we are truly a melting pot," says Lawson Gow, founder and CEO of The Cannon, in a news release. "We want our community to reflect the amazing diversity across our city, so we have to move beyond simply discussing diversity and work to create an environment where innovation can thrive and real change can happen. We are confident Impact Hub will be the perfect partner to bring those aspects to our community."

Gow, who is the son of InnovationMap's parent company's CEO, opened the doors to its new 120,000-square-foot facility in July. Impact Hub Houston will have a presence in the space.

"Over the past few years, Lawson and I have brainstormed how we could work together to connect and grow our region's innovation ecosystem and demonstrate how organizations can evolve from competition to true collaboration," says Grace Rodriguez, CEO and Executive Director of Impact Hub Houston, in the release. "I'm so excited that those talks have developed into this partnership: Through The Cannon and Impact Hub Houston, we'll be able to effectively 'meet people where they are' geographically, socially, and culturally, helping diverse entrepreneurs and startups at the myriad intersections of place, purpose, demographics, psychographics, and business growth stages."

Houston innovator nominated for prestigious Silicon Valley award

Alley Lyles is up for an award for her work in digital transformation.

Alley Lyles, digital transformation manager at Direct Energy and Houston startup mentor, was nominated for a Women in IT - Silicon Valley award as Transformation Leader of the Year. The awards event is on October 9.

She is up against Emily Dunn at Anaplan, Windy Garrett at Atos, Manju Abraham at Delphix, Aashima Gupta at Google, Patricia Grant at ServiceNow, and Nataliya Anon at Svitla Systems.

"I am proud to represent Houston in Silicon Valley. The Houston hustle is real. I see it amongst my colleagues who got me here. The hustle isn't always glamorous, so I appreciate the moment when a kid from the East End can shine."