What are the ingredients of the perfect C-suite?

Harmonious dissonance in the boardroom can be a good thing, says Dean Stamoulis.

by Dean Stamoulis
Last Updated: 26 Aug 2016

Executives are often tempted to surround themselves with individuals who strongly resemble them, whether strategically, psychologically or even physically. But executives who think alike tend to share blind spots and weaknesses, and when attitudes tip too far in any one direction, disaster can result.

Creativity may seem like an unqualified positive, but imagine a tech start-up led only by dreamers without the more structured mindset to build on those dreams and point out the risks. In contrast, a C-suite of rules-oriented executives may become so bureaucratically entangled that nothing ever gets done.

Lack of psychological diversity in the C-suite has been shown to precede stagnation in organisations. When executives are too alike, it clouds their perception of changes in the external environment, and ultimately hinders their organisation’s ability to survive and thrive. 

The ingredients of an ideal C-suite

The C-suite isn’t just about the CEO anymore. Increasingly it will operate as a single organism. With this in mind, psychologically diverse C-suites work together far more closely and fluidly than homogenous groups of executives. They are better placed to bounce ideas off each other, leverage each other’s differences as strengths, and take a broader and comprehensive approach towards tackling business challenges and seizing opportunities. 

So what does the ideal C-suite look like? Our team at global executive search and advisory firm Russell Reynolds Associates decided to find out by conducting in-depth research into this topic. 

Our Center for Leadership Insight analysed the leadership and behavioural styles of over 7,000 executives in the firm’s proprietary database, with a focus on six key roles: CEO, CFO, CMO, CHRO, CIO/CTO and general counsel. We then looked across the C-suite to see where these figures tended to align with each other and where they diverged.

We discovered that the optimal C-suite involves a balance of diverse personalities and perspectives, along four dimensions:

  1. Orientation toward process and structure: Some executives are highly organised in their thinking, focused on clear processes and approaches; others are more intuitive, preferring to make decisions "in the moment".
  2. Sociability: Some in the C-suite are extroverted, persuasive and dynamic in their communication style, while others tend to be more introverted, allowing the extroverts to do the persuading for them.
  3. Worldview: Some executives tend towards an optimistic worldview, while others are more sceptical.
  4. Creativity: Some are more imaginative and innovative; others are more realistic, and build on the ideas of others.

A C-suite in which every executive was average on each of the four dimensions would be akin to a ship sitting in still waters. The business would be unable to gain momentum, leaving it highly vulnerable to disruptive competitors or major macro-economic trends. 

A well-balanced C-suite on the other hand produces ‘harmonious dissonance’ – continual and dynamic back-and-forth debate and resolution that leads to effective problem solving. 

We intuitively know that personalities tend to align with different C-suite roles. To illustrate this, we developed archetypes for each C-suiterole, based on their statistically significant psychometric traits.

The CEO 

CEOs could be considered ‘scholar-athletes’, who surpass the overall executive population in how they think (independently, inventively and optimistically) and how they behave (assertively, embracing risk, and capitalising on opportunities). They tend to provide the energy – the sociability, optimistic worldview and creative ideas – that propel the C-suite forward.


CFOs are the ‘analytical engines" of the C-suite, who possess the '3 D’s': data orientation, detail orientation, and diligence. They build on their ideas and serve as tactical masterminds, ensuring the organisation’s aspirations are possible and will not lead to unnecessary risk taking.

CIOs and CTOs

CIOs and CTOs display an adaptable and dynamic approach to business, and have a penchant for free thinking, meaning they are well placed to introduce novel and potentially revolutionary technologies that help the company stay ahead of its competitors. 

The General Counsel

General Counsels, otherwise known as 'the conscience', use their reflective thinking to find solutions to the firm’s most immediate problems. They are particularly adept at identifying and managing the ever-increasing number of corporate risks. 


CMOs are the 'Changemaking Artists' of the C-Suite. They are distinguished for their imaginative style and their distaste for convention. However, these executives are also highly inclusive in their leadership style, and use their penchant for selling and genuine interest in their colleague’s motivations to bring others on the journey with them. 


CHROs could be described as the 'advisor/challenger moving mountains'. They are highly effective at cutting through bureaucracy and making crisp decisions that advance their organisation, whilst leveraging their social confidence and empathy to smooth the process.  

Dean T. Stamoulis is managing director of Russell Reynolds Associates.

Image credit: Lisa Brewster/Flickr


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