First-borns dominate American boardrooms

2007

Ambitious youngest children look away now. First-borns dominate American boardrooms and the oldest child in the family is much more likely to make it right to the top and become chief executive.

A poll conducted by USA Today newspaper has found startling evidence that first-borns tend to be higher achievers in the corporate world than their younger brothers and sisters.

High-profile chief executives such as Microsoft boss Steve Balmer, Andrea Jung of Avon, Ameritrade's Joe Moglia and Charles Schwab may all be first-borns but the findings are nevertheless likely to be contentious, not least around the family dinner table.

The newspaper decided to look at the issue after a study by Norwegian scientists in the July edition of Nature concluded that the oldest children on average had a slightly higher IQ than their siblings.

It went to CEO organisation Vistage, which conducted a poll among its members and from more than 1,500 responses found that nearly half – 43 per cent – were born first, a third were middle children and fewer than a quarter were born last.

The paper then followed this up with a smaller survey of chief executives on its own panel.

From 155 responses, nearly six out of 10 were first born, nearly a quarter were middle children and fewer than a fifth were the youngest.

Of course it's impossible to say precisely why this might be, but the paper surmised that it might be because first-borns get the undivided attention, at least for a time, of their parents.

They also have the pressure of greater expectations and are forced to become self-sufficient because they may have to look after younger siblings while not having an older sibling looking out for them.

Ben Dattner, a psychology professor at New York University, told the newspaper the findings made complete sense.

First-borns were often more extroverted, confident, assertive, authoritarian, dominant, inflexible, conformist, politically conservative, task-oriented, conscientious, disciplined, defensive about errors and fearful of losing position and rank, he argued.

The days may have passed when the family farm was handed down to the oldest son, but the advantage persisted in parental time and resources.

He cited the example of one Harvard classroom where first-born freshmen were asked to stand on the first day of school – only about a fifth remained seated.

Craig Hunt, chief executive of vacation home developer Keys Caribbean Resorts and a middle child, said his older brother automatically inherited the helm of his father's plastic business.

He told the paper, apparently somewhat bitterly: "It didn't matter which child was the smarter. It only took me 30 years to earn my CEO job elsewhere."

Jim McCann, chief executive of 1-800-Flowers and the oldest of five said he learnt parental skills in childhood, such as offering encouragement and setting limits for what would be tolerated, skills that remained valuable when he became a CEO.

And Michael Koss, chief executive of stereo headphones maker Koss, said the advantage was incremental.

He recalled going to the candy store with his four younger siblings in tow and having 25 cents for each. He put each sibling's change into a separate pocket, so gaining his first lesson in accounting.

Mike Bolen, chief executive of McCarthy Building and the oldest of two boys, said first-borns got "early training in taking full credit for anything good that happens, and blaming baby brother for anything that goes wrong. That serves first-born children well as they manoeuvre up the corporate ladder."

Of course, many successful chief executives were not the first born, the paper also pointed out, citing Southwest Airlines' former CEO Howard Putnam, who was the youngest of three.

And psychologist Dattner said there was growing evidence that first-born CEOs may not always be the best choice.

They could solve problems and usually drive through incremental improvements, but later-born CEOs were more likely to take risks and challenge the status quo.

Similarly, younger siblings will often be born into families where someone is already occupying the niche of academic achiever, so they seek out other creative ways to blaze their own path, he pointed out.

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