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Rice research: Do leaders with distinctive names run distinctive businesses?

A CEO with an unusual name is likely to be confident about creating a unique strategy, this Rice University researcher finds. Photo via Pexels

You probably know the names Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Bob Johnson. But how about DeShuna Spencer? She's the founder and CEO of the online streaming platform KweliTV. The platform's broad array of movies, news and other programming features are all created by people of African descent. KweliTV (Kweli means "Truth" in Kiswahili) was recently ranked one of the 16 best movie streaming services of 2020 by PC Magazine.

This achievement is all the more distinctive considering Spencer competes in the same territory as billion dollar brands such as Hulu, Disney, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video — and has managed to do so without securing a single full seed investment. Today, 60 percent of KweliTV's revenue returns to the pockets of its Black creators, who typically have limited distribution access.

What enabled Spencer to break out of the pack? Part of the answer could lie in her unusual first name, according to research by Rice Business professor Yan "Anthea" Zhang and David H. Zhu and Yungu Kang of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. In a recently published paper, the team explored the startling role a first name can play in CEO strategies.

While companies direct considerable resources — and lip service — toward innovation and better products, the team writes, they should also give special consideration to CEO candidates with unusual names. According to their findings, a CEO with a distinctive name is more likely to lead a distinctive company.

Past research has shown many links between organizations' success and their leaders' personal traits: temperaments, life experiences, personal values and demographic profiles. CEO names should be included in this list of variables, Zhang's team argues.

That's because people with unusual names see themselves as being different from their peers, studies suggest. The dynamic is unsurprising: others often see the holders of unusual names as different. As a result, people with uncommon names internalize these impressions.

The feeling of difference can be excruciating, as anyone who has spent time in a schoolyard knows. CEO types, however, don't have that problem. "Many people may not have the confidence to exhibit how unique they believe themselves to be," Zhang's team writes. "CEOs do — they are generally confident individuals."

Armed with self-assurance, CEOs with rare names are at ease differentiating themselves in the workplace. Their leadership strategies, the researchers found, reflect that impulse. In other words, a CEO with a striking name is likely to build a striking business strategy.

To study these links, the team analyzed business strategies and other data from 1,172 companies between 1998 and 2016. Industries in the sample included mining, construction, manufacturing, transportation and public utilities, wholesale and retail trade, finance, insurance, service companies and real estate.

Then, to measure how common — or uncommon — a CEO's name was, the researchers looked at naming records from the United States Social Security Administration between 1880 and 2016, controlling for ethnicity, gender and country of birth. James, John and Robert were among the predictable greatest hits. The most uncommon names included Phaneesh, Frits and Jure.

Among the researchers' findings:

  • The more uncommon a CEO's name, the greater her firm's strategic distinctiveness is likely to be.
  • The more confident a CEO is, the stronger the correlation between her name's distinctiveness and that of her company strategy.
  • A CEO's power also affects the correlation between her name's distinctiveness and her likelihood of having a distinctive strategy. The greater the power, the stronger the correlation.

Overall, the researchers concluded, a CEO with an odd first name may be more likely to help a business rise from mediocre to revolutionary. Boards looking for this kind of transformation should consider CEOs with names that suit.

Recruiters are notorious for ignoring resumes and applications headed with ethnic names. Not only is this linguistic tunnel vision an engine of systemic racism, Zhang's team found, it's a strategic mistake.

Gravitating to a familiar face, race or name is human nature. It can also weaken a company's talent base — and ultimately its own quest to be outstanding.

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This article originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom and is based on research from Yan "Anthea" Zhang is the Fayez Sarofim Vanguard Professor of Management — Strategic Management at Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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Building Houston

 
 

The promotion of drones helps the city of Houston transition to becoming the energy 2.0 capital of the world, says this expert. Photo courtesy

The state of Texas, as well as the rest of the nation, has been intensely impacted by the effects of climate change as well as aging utility infrastructure. Innovative drone technologies help address the pressing inspection and mapping needs of utilities and other critical infrastructure across the country, primarily bridges and roads, railways, pipelines, and powerplants.

There is a significant need for high-precision inspection services in today's market. Additional work will result if the proposed infrastructure bill passes. The bill has $73 billion earmarked toward modernizing the nation's electricity grid. Drone —or UAS (unmanned aerial systems)— technological advances, including thermal imaging, LiDAR (light detection and ranging), IRR (infrared radiation and remote sensing), and AI/ML (artificial intelligence/machine learning) are applied toward determining and predicting trends and are instrumental toward making our country safer.

"The newest advances in drone technology are not so much in the drones themselves, but rather, in the sensors and cameras, such as thermal cameras. Technologies such as LiDAR are now more cost-effective. The newer sensors permit the drones to operate in tighter spaces and cover more acreage in less time, with higher accuracy and fidelity", according to Will Paden, president of Soaring Eagle Technologies, a Houston-based tech-enabled imaging company servicing utility and energy companies.

Paden anticipates growth in the use of the technology for critical infrastructure including utilities, pipelines, power plants, bridges, buildings, railways, and more, for routine and post-storm inspections

"[Soaring Eagle's] ability to harness UAS technology to efficiently retrieve field data across our 8,000+ square mile area is unprecedented. Coupling this data with post-processing methods such as asset digitization unlocked a plethora of opportunities to visualize system resources and further analyze the surrounding terrain and environment," says Paige Richardson, GIS specialist with Navopache Electric Cooperative. "Our engineering and operations departments now have the ability to view 3D substation models, abstract high-resolution digital evaluation models, and apply these newfound resources as they work on future construction projects."

The promotion of drones helps the city of Houston transition to becoming the energy 2.0 capital of the world. The UAS (unmanned aerial systems) technology offers an environmentally cleaner option for routine and post-storm inspections, replacing the use of fossil fuels consumed by helicopters. The use of drones versus traditional inspection systems is significantly safer, more efficient and accurate than traditional alternatives such as scaffolding or bucket trucks. Mapping and inspection work can be done at much lower costs than with manned aircraft operations. These are highly technical flights, where the focus on safety and experience flying both manned and unmanned aircraft, is paramount.

There is much work ahead in high-tech drone technology services, especially for companies vetted by the FAA with high safety standards. According to one study, the overall drone inspection & monitoring market is projected to grow from USD 9.1 billion in 2021 to USD 33.6 billion by 2030, at a CAGR of 15.7 percent from 2021 to 2030. North America is estimated to account for the largest share of the drone inspection & monitoring market from 2021 to 2030.

Paden predicts the use of machine learning/artificial intelligence (ML/AI) and data automation will continue to improve over the next 3-5 years, as more data is collected and analyzed and the technology is a applied to "teach it" to detect patterns and anomalies. He anticipates ML/AI will filter out the amount of data the end users will need to view to make decisions saving time and money for the end users.

Learn more at the Energy Drone & Robotics Summit taking place in The Woodlands on October 25 through October 27.

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Alex Danielides is head of business development for Houston-based Iapetus Holdings, a privately held, minority and veteran-owned portfolio of energy and utility services businesses. One of the companies is Soaring Eagle Technologies.

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