First-Born Kids Grow Up to be CEO Material

Originally posted in USA Today on September 4, 2007.

Scientists have found that first-born children are smarter than their brothers and sisters. It appears they are more likely to succeed in business, too.

Be it drive or aptitude or a slightly higher IQ, the advantage crosses gender and international lines. Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer is an eldest child, as is Avon’s Andrea Jung. Charles Schwab, the oldest of two, overcame dyslexia to become one of the world’s richest. Joe Moglia, CEO of TD Ameritrade, was first-born of five and says he received regular corporal punishment as a child.

When he was 8, Bill George says his father tried to make up for his own perceived failures by telling his eldest son he could become CEO of Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble or IBM. “A heavy load for a young boy,” says George, who worked summers at all three and later rose to be CEO of Medtronic, from where he retired.

A large study done by Norwegian scientists and published in July in the journal Science found that oldest children on average had a slightly higher IQ than their siblings.

The study did not look at eventual business achievement, but the gap of just 2.3 points was enough to sometimes mean the difference in better colleges and job opportunities, and the study suggested that first-born children were more likely to strive.

No scientific study of such size has examined the birth order of CEOs, but USA TODAY asked Vistage, the world’s largest CEO organization, to survey its membership. It conducts surveys regularly on a variety of business and economic issues, but the birth order question struck an unprecedented nerve.

Vistage received 1,582 responses, vs. 200 to 300 for previous surveys, says spokesman Tony Vignieri. Of those, 43% were born first, 23% born last and 33% landed somewhere in the middle.

USA TODAY followed up with a smaller survey of CEOs on its own panel. It received responses from 155, of which 59% were first born, 18% were the youngest and 23% fell in the middle.

Why do first-born children so dominate the boardrooms? CEOs themselves say they got hit in the face early in life with a stew of factors. Those included the undivided attention, at least for a time, from their parents.

They say they felt the pressure of greater expectations. They were forced to become self-sufficient because they had to look after younger siblings while not having an older sibling looking out for them.

Ben Dattner, a psychology professor at New York University who has studied birth order, says it makes sense that first-born children rise to the top.

They are 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.

The days may have passed when the family farm was handed down to the oldest son, but the advantage persists in parental time and resources, Dattner says. He knows of one Harvard classroom where first-born freshmen are asked to stand on the first day of school. Only about 20% remain seated, he says.

Craig Hunt, CEO of vacation home developer Keys Caribbean Resorts and a middle child, says his older brother automatically inherited the helm of his father’s plastic business. “It didn’t matter which child was the smarter. It only took me 30 years to earn my CEO job elsewhere,” he says.

The oldest children are like surrogate parents, says Jim McCann, CEO of 1-800-Flowers and the oldest of five. That means they learn parental skills in childhood, such as offering encouragement and setting limits for what will be tolerated, skills that remain valuable to CEOs, he says.

The impact can also be small and incremental. Michael Koss, CEO of stereo headphones maker Koss, remembers 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, his first lesson in accounting.

The darker side, jokes Mike Bolen, CEO of McCarthy Building and the oldest of two boys, is that first-borns get “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 maneuver up the corporate ladder.”

Eldest children become leaders, though not necessarily “quality” leaders, says first-born Adam Sewall, CEO of telecommunications company T3 Communications. True, they are pioneers, he says, but “a lot of pioneers end up with arrows in their backs.”

Many first-born CEOs said they have more intelligent brothers and sisters. And younger siblings say their smarter brothers and sisters don’t always have the business drive.

David Cline, CEO of Balboa Instruments, has an older brother “many more times intelligent than me,” who retired at about 55 as a computer consultant, was never an executive, and now plays volleyball on the beach.

They’re not sure they’re any happier than their less accomplished siblings, but first-born CEOs — being both confident and fearful of losing rank — say they’re certain that they make better leaders, if only because leadership is flat-out expected of older children.

Not a slam dunk

Of course, many successful CEOs were not the first born. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly was, but former Southwest CEO Howard Putnam was the baby on an Iowa farm. “My two talented and intelligent older sisters supported me in every endeavor,” he says.

And Dattner says that there’s growing evidence that first-born CEOs aren’t always the best choice. They can solve problems and can usually drive through incremental improvements, but later-born CEOs are more likely to take risks and challenge the status quo. They’re 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.

CEOs who were the babies in the family believe that the next generation of CEOs will more often come from their ranks because they grew up with more freedom and fewer boundaries. Luis Rivera, a baby brother and CEO of e-mail software company J.L. Halsey, says when he was a child at his first ski lesson, he decided to “launch himself downhill.” His older brother said he was crazy. “Yet, in his eyes, I could see he was impressed,” Rivera says. “The order of birth has little to do with it. It’s mostly our risk tolerance.”

Patrick Sweeney, CEO of computer firm Odin Technologies and a champion rower, says he never had his older brother’s strength, which taught him to “compete against the likes of IBM or (Hewlett-Packard).”

Similarly, Ben Golub, CEO of tech company Plaxo, says being the youngest of two boys toughened him up, but said he could not elaborate — too big a risk “my big brother would give me a noogie.”

Harland Stonecipher, CEO of Pre-Paid Legal Services is the youngest, with four brothers and a sister. His parents were sharecroppers, and none of his siblings completed high school. They were too poor to have running water “unless I ran and got it,” he says. But he was the youngest by nine years, which meant family finances had improved slightly as older siblings moved away, enough so that there was a window of opportunity for Stonecipher where none existed before.

Middle children have war stories, too. “My dad was an expert practitioner of conditional love, so there was a significant amount of competition between girls,” says Karen Scott, president of Chelsea & Scott, a seller of educational toys, and the second of three daughters.

Then there are those such as FedEx CEO Fred Smith, who calls himself a “hybrid mongrel” because his mother was a widow who had two previous sons before she married his father. Smith is an only child from the second marriage, but has two older half brothers.

Similar stories globally

The domination of older children in business appears to have no gender or international boundaries. Andrea McGinty, founder of dot-com success stories Baby Dagny and It’s Just Lunch, is the eldest of six, as is Leonard Liu, CEO of Augmentum, a 1,000-employee software developer based in Shanghai with offices in Beijing and San Francisco.

McGinty says she was old enough to remember her father working his way up in a department store chain and how his hard work led to a transition for the family to a better lifestyle.

Unlike her siblings, she often accompanied her father to work, where she stocked shelves at age 5 and was doing weather analysis reports on store traffic at age 12.

McGinty says she learned that hard work has its rewards and that her experience being a “bit bossy” with siblings is a valuable asset to this day.

Vijay Eswaran was first-born in Malaysia to a family of Indian origin. He is CEO of Hong Kong-based QI Group, a 2,000-employee conglomerate with 1 million customers in 190 countries. Most people would say his kid brother, Vicknesh, also is a success. He runs an 85-employee subsidiary phone company in London. But Vijay says he and his brother are very different.

Vijay says he is more driven. “It’s not about intelligence. It’s the drive,” says Vijay, also the oldest among 25 cousins. He says he still ruffles the hair of his cousins when he greets them, even though most are by now parents themselves.

Says Vijay: “Worldwide, the eldest tend to be people who break new ground, take on challenges. We have greater responsibility because we were impromptu babysitters. We have to set an example. Everyone is looking up to you.

“It puts weight on you a little early,” he says. “You grow up a little faster, get a little wiser, whereas the younger ones are more pampered. We take the first bruises, the first falls.”