For CEOs, beauty is a boon, Duke study says

Staff WriterApril 27, 2010 

  • The research study "A Corporate Beauty Contest" was written by three finance professors at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business: John R. Graham, Campbell R. Harvey and Manju Puri. The study can be found at ssrn.com/abstract=1571469.

  • CEOs of large corporations were rated on four attributes in the study: attractiveness, competence, likableness and trustworthiness. Participants used a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. The results below represent the average of all the ratings received by CEOs Richard Fuld Jr., Charles Prince and Kerry Killinger.

    Fuld

    Prince

    Killinger

    Attractiveness

    2.56

    2.51

    2.91

    Competence

    3.41

    3.32

    3.6

    Likableness

    3.06

    2.87

    3.31

    Trustworthiness

    3.07

    3.09

    3.16

Becoming a corporate CEO is supposed to involve hard work, long hours and business acumen.

It also often requires a solid jaw line and small, piercing eyes, according to a new research study from three finance professors at Duke University.

Titled "A Corporate Beauty Contest," the study asked nearly 2,000 people, mostly college and graduate school students, to rate the facial traits of corporate CEOs alongside non-CEOs and the heads of smaller companies. The results suggest that looks do indeed matter in corporate board rooms.

"Our results suggest that CEOs who look competent have higher pay, but their companies do not necessarily do better," said Manju Puri, who wrote the study along with fellow Fuqua School of Business finance professors Campbell Harvey and John Graham. "So that should be a matter of concern."

Those deemed less competent tended to be baby-faced with large round eyes, high eyebrows and a small chin.

"People tend to rate such people as being more likable, more warm, more trustworthy, but less competent," Puri said.

The study was conducted online and included only photos of white males who were taken from a 2004 database of CEOs. The participants did not know who the men in the photos were. All the photos were of men in business dress in conventional poses in front of bland backgrounds.

"If we have someone skiing, we can't really use that as a picture," Puri said.

In one part of the study, participants were presented with 87 pairs of photos - one CEO and one non-CEO - and asked to note which person was more competent, trustworthy, likable and attractive.

The professors got the idea from a 2005 study that showed that elections were often won by the better-looking politician. Harvey said that while the corporate world doesn't appear to be as shallow as the political arena, the results were still surprising.

"For an election, people don't have that much information, they look at a face and make some sort of judgment. That makes sense to me," Harvey said. "For a CEO it's a totally different story. People are highly informed. It's a rigorous selection and there's years of track record. This stuff should not be important."

The 'beauty premium'

Economists have documented what they refer to as a "beauty premium," a tendency of better looking people to make more money throughout their career.

Puri said what their study shows is something slightly different. "We're not finding a beauty premium in terms of attractiveness," she said. "But we are finding a competent-looks premium."

The photos included several former CEOs whose competence has been questioned by Congress over the past year.

Richard Fuld Jr. (balding, high forehead, deep-set eyes) was CEO of investment bank Lehman Brothers when it went bankrupt in the fall of 2008 and send the world economy into a tailspin.

Charles Prince (arched eyebrows, coiffed hair) was CEO of Citigroup, which required $45 billion in government aid to stay afloat.

And Kerry Killinger (twinkly eyes, helmet hair, crows feet) was CEO of Washington Mutual, which became the largest bank failure in U.S. history when it went belly up in 2008.

Those surveyed gave Fuld, Prince and Killinger marks above the median average for competence.

Scot Wingo, CEO of Morrisville-based ChannelAdvisor, which makes software to help retailers sell on the Web, is one CEO who doesn't buy into the idea that looks are a key factor in becoming a chief executive.

"I don't think you have to be George Clooney to be successful," Wingo said. "I mean, look at Bill Gates. He's not amazingly handsome."

Wingo said he's judged by how he interacts with clients, employees and partners and by the company's performance.

"Thank God for that because I'm not the most handsome CEO," he said.

david.bracken@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4548

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