WSJ: How Does a Successful CEO Sound?

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How Does a Successful CEO Sound?

How do you project success? For men, new research suggests it may help to have a nice, deep bass.

Professors from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and University of California, San Diego’s Rady School of Management studied the vocal pitches of 792 male chief executives at publicly traded companies. They wanted to find out whether deep voices correlated with success. Prior research has shown that a Barry White-like bass is often preferable when it comes to selecting a mate. A separate Duke study last year found that voters favor political candidates with deeper voices.

The researchers in this latest study tracked the vocal “fundamental frequencies” of CEOs’ speech during earnings calls or investor presentations, then analyzed measures of their success, including compensation, company size and tenure.

The median CEO, with a 125.5 hertz vocal frequency, earned $3.7 million, ran a $2.4 billion company and was 56. (For perspective, Duke researcher Bill Mayew says James Earl Jones’s voice is around 85Hz.)

Not bad, but researchers found that executives with voices on the deeper (that is, lower-frequency) end of the scale earned, on average, $187,000 more in pay and led companies with $440 million more in assets. That benefit proved true even when controlling for a leader’s experience, education, dominant facial features and other variables that might sway decisions of recruiters and compensation committees.

The researchers caution they are just noting the correlation between traits, not causation. The research will be published in a forthcoming issue of Evolution & Human Behavior.

A small study of female business leaders released earlier this month suggests the pattern doesn’t hold for women. The voices of 10 top female executives are closer in pitch to the average for all women, based on a comparison with a database of 423 woman by Quantified Communications, a provider of communications analytics. The sample included eight of the 21 female CEOs who currently head Fortune 500 companies: PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer, DuPont’s Ellen Kullman, IBM’s Virginia Rometty, Xerox’s Ursula Burns, Mondelez International’s Irene Rosenfeld, ADM’s Patricia Woertz and Hewlett-Packard’s Meg Whitman.

Female leaders stand out for the “vocal energy,” or variations in loudness, they use to drive home their points. An energetic voice comes across as authentic, inspiring trust, says Carrie Goldberger, a Quantified Communications research analyst.

—Melissa Korn and
Sue Shellenbarger