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Do CEOs with Odd Names Really Pursue Odd Strategies?

Updated: Nov 14, 2021

What’s in a name? According to a recent HBR article by Professor David Zhu from Arizona State University and fellow researchers, this appears to be the case. CEOs with odd names pursue unusual strategies.

This research argues that the more uncommon a CEO’s name, the more the organization strategy will deviate from the industry norms.

It seems quite ridiculous. common wisdom suggests that if you are called a strange name in school, you are ripe for some degree of ridicule or bullying. For instance, once upon a time, Brooklyn or Paris or Berlin or Prince would certainly earn you stand out fame but not necessarily friends.

Does this make a child more or less resilient? More or less open to new ideas? Does that child then become more confident and successful than if they were called Ben, Susan, Prakash or Priyanka?

Game of Thrones spawned many newborns called Khaleesi. How successful will they be?

But on a moments reflection, maybe it’s not so odd. Who Fits this ‘odd’ bill? Who springs to mind? I’m immediately thinking of Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla but then, Elon is only ‘odd’ in an Irish context but not necessarily in a Silicon Valley context. Similarly for the athletes Usain Bolt or Haillie Selassie. I struggle to find other ‘odd’ CEO names.

The question is more what constitutes an ‘odd’ name and an ‘odd’ strategy. Zhu used Social Security Administration data to map frequency of US names against the first names of CEOs in 1,172 public firms over a 19-year period. A firm’s financial resource allocation was used to define its strategy.

I assume that a CEO called Elizabeth for example who deviates extensively from the US industry norm would be excluded from this population. A CEO such as Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, famed for its fake blood-test system over a decade, would be an outlier.

A Case Worth Considering?

The article suggests that this insight might be a useful screening criteria in executive recruitment. I think not. This is already an area replete with bias, false attributions and stereotypes.

When we see clickbait headlines like this in respected journals, it’s easy to automatically accept them without much reflection. That’s the danger of system-1 thinking. It mesnd the next time that an employee called Riverdance or Bedsheet presents a proposal to you that you deem it odd. That’s the power of suggestion.

It’s probably more odd to just accept others ideas and not probe their validity before accepting them.


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