The Atlantic Examines Henderson's Work on How CEOs' Childhoods Shape Their Careers

The Professional Triumph of the Firstborns

When corporate boards pick out new CEOs, they scrutinize candidates’ qualifications, studying their performance in previous jobs and vetting their academic credentials. But as a recent study suggests, they might want to look even further back in the histories of corporate hopefuls: CEOs’ experiences in childhood seem to shape what kind of leaders they grow up to be.

The study—co-authored by the University of Chicago’s Todd Henderson and Florida State University’s Irena Hutton—looked at more than 650 CEOs’ birth order, family size, and history of childhood trauma, as well as their parents’ occupations and socioeconomic standing. This information covered a range of CEOs who held their positions in the ‘90s, ‘00s, and ‘10s, and was assembled from a smattering of sources, including newspapers, biographies, trade publications, and alumni magazines.

Not every element of family history seemed to be linked to CEOs’ later-in-life job performance, but many were relevant. “If I were a board member and I was in an interview with a [potential] CEO, I would ask them, ‘Tell me about your family history,’” Henderson told me.

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