Academy of Strategic Management Journal (Print ISSN: 1544-1458; Online ISSN: 1939-6104)

Research Article: 2020 Vol: 19 Issue: 1

CEO Characteristics: A Literature Review and Future Directions

Marwan Altarawneh, Tunku Intan Safinaz School of Accountancy, Universiti Utara Malaysia

Rohami Shafie, Tunku Intan Safinaz School of Accountancy, Universiti Utara Malaysia

Rokiah Ishak, Tunku Intan Safinaz School of Accountancy, Universiti Utara Malaysia


This paper reviews existing literature related to the different facets of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) that may add value to firms. The focus of this paper is on CEO characteristics as the CEO position is very crucial in the management hierarchy, CEOs become part of the important factor that enhances the firms’ performances as well as financial reporting quality, and their characteristics are claimed to play essential roles in the firms. Many firms have excelled in business as a result of their CEO’s characteristics. However, prior studies have manifested mixed and inconclusive results as well as several gaps in the literature have also been identified due to the inconsistent results of previous studies. In addition, previous research highlights the individual CEO’s characteristics that impact the firm’s performance and also the quality of financial reporting and provides an impetus for conducting more studies in related areas. This paper provides a better understanding of the roles of CEO characteristics and future directions for research. In addition, this paper recommends to the regulators about the CEOs characteristics that affect firm performance and financial reporting quality. Finally, the paper suggests that firms should focus on these characteristics in enhancing their performances and financial reporting quality.


CEO Characteristics, Financial Reporting Quality, Firm Performance.


The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is one of the critical players in the corporate sector. Sitting in the top positions of the management teams in firms, CEOs are able to guide the firms to actively pursue opportunities (Barnard, 1938), and control the structures and strategies of the firms (Woodward, 1965; Lawrence & Lorsch, 1967 and Thompson, 1967). Specifically, CEOs pursue important and strategic decisions that can influence the performances of their firms (Child, 1972). Drucker (1954) claimed that the most important determinant of the survival and success of a firm are based on the performance and quality of the top managers in the firm.

In other words, CEOs have crucial roles to play for the firm’s successes or failures. However, a few years back, financial and accounting statement fraud, scandals and CEO participation had been extensively documented (Troy et al., 2011). The cornerstone of the scandals was, among others, earnings manipulation (i.e., Enron, WorldCom, Tesco Plc‘s, Toshiba and Satyam). Firms’ managers who are driven by different motivations might apply several techniques of earnings manipulation to avoid reporting losses or low earnings, believing that by doing so, they can improve the image of their firms. Such techniques do not only mislead the users of the financial information (Saleh et al., 2005; Malik, 2015), but also affect the investors’ confidence in the financial statements in a negative manner. This has also led to an increase in the public perception of earnings manipulation (Hamid et al., 2013).

Moreover, the involvement and indictment of CEOs in financial statement fraud have run rampant. For example, in the United States, the CEO of Tyco, Kozlowski, manipulated earnings which resulted in the loss of US$100 billion in the firms’ market value (a sum that exceeded Enron’s total loss) (Troy et al., 2011). Another case, which was the Satyam scandal, occurred in India. The CEO of Satyam took the final responsibility for all accounting misappropriations as he fudged the book of accounts so that it seemed to be a bigger enterprise, with a faster growth rate and higher profits than it really had. The debacle of Satyam raised a discussion about the character of a CEO in driving a firm to the altitudes of success (Bhasin, 2015 & 2016).

Evidently, CEO characteristics have been listed among numerous factors that influence firms, as reported by several studies. The CEO's personality is likely to have an important impact on a firm’s success (Kets de Vries & Miller, 1984; Miller & Toulouse, 1985). The focus of the paper is on CEO characteristics as the CEO position is very crucial in the management hierarchy. Therefore, this paper sheds light on the CEOs’ characteristics and their impacts on firms. Thus, it is important that this paper will assist researchers in understanding the roles of CEOs in firms. The first part of this paper provides the literature review of previous studies of the CEO characteristics. The second part offers vital information about the relationships between the characteristics of CEOs and firm performance. The third part discusses the relationships between CEO characteristics and financial reporting quality. The forth part shows the methodology. Finally, discussions and conclusions are presented at the end of this paper.

Literature Review

CEO Characteristics Studies

Hambrick (2007) posits that the best way to understand a particular firm’s performance is to consider its fundamental dispositions and biases of the powerful actors, who are the top executives. These assumptions are based on the upper echelons theory that was proposed by Hambrick & Mason (1984). The theory opines that, the characteristics of managers can be useful in predicting the outcomes of the firm. The theory argues that the cognitive base and values of the executives influence the basis of their personalized interpretations of the strategic situations they face. It shows a person’s knowledge base, skills, values and the ability to process information, which influences the process of making decisions (Hambrick, 2007).

There has been a growth of studies on managerial characteristics topics as seen in the past decade. Shefrin (2001) indicated that managers’ sociological and physiological characteristics may impact various management decisions. Several studies have shown that the characteristics of CEOs influence decision-making. For example, Byrnes et al. (1999) studied the CEOs’ gender and risk-taking attitudes; Brown & Sarma (2007) researched the CEO’s overconfidence and corporate acquisitions; Barros & Da Silveira (2007) studied the CEO founder and the use of leverage; Bamber et al. (2010) investigated the age of CEOs and voluntary choice of financial disclosure; Li et al. (2011) and Serfling (2012) studied the age of CEOs and investment decisions; and Tomak (2013) examined the CEO’s overconfidence and capital structure decisions. In addition, the CEOs have a substantial amount of control on the reported financial results of their firms. Several empirical studies have supported these allegations (Jiang et al., 2010; Bamber et al., 2010 and Demerjian et al., 2013), and those on CEO turnover (Kramarz & Thesmar, 2013) and corporate governance (Brown et al., 2012). Ting et al. (2015) examined the impacts of the personal characteristics of the CEOs on financial leverage.

Many characteristics of the CEOs have been identified in the previous studies, such as gender, education, expertise, tenure, age, career background, experience, shareholding and duality, that impact the CEO’s behavior (Bamber et al., 2010; Jiang et al., 2013). Recently, several studies on CEOs’ characteristics have been carried out, such as on the CEO age and the amount of capital raised (Badru et al., 2017), the CEOs demographic characteristics (e.g., experience, age, education, professional experience and gender) on corporate risk-taking (Farag & Mallin, 2018) and the CEO power on corporate social responsibility disclosures (Muttakin et al., 2018). Taken together, this river of research highlights how individual CEOs impact their firms and provides a motivation for conducting studies in related areas.

CEO Characteristics and Firm Performance

One of the major signals that are used to draw the attention of investors to a firm is firm performance. The performance of the firm is also used to assess the effectiveness of the policies and activities of the management. The information on the performance of the firm is used to make several economic decisions by the stakeholders in the circle of financial reporting (Fauzi et al., 2010). CEOs need to make sure that the performances of the firms are in line with the objectives of the firms due to the high responsibility and commitment by the stakeholders. Hence, an individual needs to have certain qualities and criteria in order to become the CEO of a firm.

Recent decades have witnessed a surge of research interest in the effect of CEOs on firm performance (Burgelman et al., 2018). Researchers in various fields have used different methods to examine the extent to which CEOs account for the heterogeneity of firm performance, such as variance decomposition (Crossland & Hambrick, 2007) and stock market reactions to sudden CEO death announcements (Quigley et al., 2017).

Despite the ongoing debate (Lieberson & O’Connor, 1972; Fitza, 2014) and the constraints that CEOs may face from time to time (Hambrick & Finkelstein, 1987), prior studies have consistently found that CEOs do matter to firm performance. Indeed, the CEO effect has increased substantially over the years (Quigley & Hambrick, 2015; Quigley & Graffin, 2017). In addition, studies have moved beyond the contention that CEOs matter to questions of the channels through which they have impacts on firm performance, with a particular focus on personal characteristics. Drawing on several theoretical perspectives, the researchers have sought to investigate which CEO characteristics translate into relevant firm performance outcomes.

Taking an upper echelons perspective, some ascribe firm performance to the CEO’s background or personality (Hambrick & Mason, 1984; Hambrick, 2007; Zhu & Chen, 2015 and Wang et al., 2016). Leadership researchers have linked behavioral characteristics (e.g., leadership styles) with firm performance (Waldman et al., 2001). Academic interests have tried to relate between executive characteristics and firm outcomes. Basically, they gained momentum from Hambrick & Mason’s (1984) seminal article of the upper echelons theory, which holds that executives act on the basis of their personal interpretations of the strategic situations as a function of their experiences, values and personalities (Hambrick, 2007). From this, the stream of research has evolved the individual CEO characteristics that are related to firm strategy (Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007; Simsek et al., 2010).

A related research stream has considered that individual CEO characteristics do relate to a firm’s strategic choices. The theory underpinning this approach not only builds on the upper echelons theory to justify the basic relationship but also shifts to the explanatory variables to the individual level of the CEO and, in general, connects this with the major choices and outcomes manifested at the firm level. Previous studies have investigated a variety of different individual characteristics, including the CEO’s background, such as experience (Datta & Rajagopalan, 1998; Barker & Mueller, 2002; Cooper & Uzun, 2012 and Hamori & Koyuncu, 2015), CEOs with multiple directorships (Chiang & He, 2010), education (Ng & Feldman, 2009) and international experience (Khavul et al., 2010), and along with the impact these have on innovation, diversification and strategic change.

Researchers have also considered CEO demographics, such as age (Yim, 2013; Amran et al., 2014) and gender (Khan & Vieito, 2013; Lee & Marvel, 2014 and Chen et al., 2016), as well as personality characteristics, such as core self-evaluation (Hiller & Hambrick, 2005; Simsek et al., 2010), hubris (Hayward & Hambrick, 1997), humility (Ou et al., 2014), narcissism (Chatterjee & Hambrick, 2007) and overconfidence (Chen et al., 2015). This research stream has shed light on the effects of CEOs on firms, but very few of them link the CEO characteristics and firm performance. In summary, this stream of research highlights the individual CEO’s characteristics that impact the firm’s performance and provides an impetus for conducting studies in related areas.

CEO Characteristics and Their Impacts on Financial Reporting Quality

Several studies have verified that CEOs play significant roles in their firms’ effectiveness because they are at the highest level of management; and, are those who are in charge of formulating and implementing strategies towards their firms’ successes (Carmeli & Halevi, 2009; Liu et al., 2018). This paper has turned into a review of the previous studies related to CEO characteristics and their impacts on financial reporting quality attributes.

A number of studies documented that CEO characteristics significantly affect financial reporting quality (Huang et al., 2012). Recently, researchers have become more interested in the effects of managerial characteristics. Studies investigating managerial influence on corporate decisions have been primarily conducted in light of Hambrick & Mason’s (1984) well-known upper echelons theory. The theory professes that managerial responsibilities, background personalities and expertise affect the way managers interact in a business environment and deal with problems, which thus influences the firms’ outcomes (Pham, 2016).

Furthermore, the researchers have examined a diversity of different individual characteristics with different financial reporting quality attributes, such as financial expert (Bamber et al., 2010; Baatwah et al., 2015 and Gounopoulos & Pham, 2018), CEO age (Peterson et al., 2001; Huang et al., 2012 and Belot & Serve, 2018), CEO tenure (Michel & Hambrick, 1992; Zhang & Wiersema, 2009; Ali & Zhang, 2015 and Besar et al., 2017), CEO reputation (Francis et al., 2008), CEO networks (Starr & MacMillan, 1990; Hoang & Antoncic, 2003 and Bhandari et al., 2018), the overconfidence of CEOs (Schrand & Zechman, 2012) and CEO gender (Kotiranta et al., 2007; Adams & Ferreira, 2009; Arun et al., 2015; Na & Hong, 2017 and Belot & Serve, 2018). Previous studies argued that newly-listed firms with financial expert CEOs are less likely to participate in earnings management. Similarly, CEO age positively affectes financial reporting quality. Additionally, previous research revealed that a long-tenured top management was aligned with team familiarity and cohesion of the firm’s internal business (Kor, 2006; Ali & Zhang, 2015).

Essentially, a position held for a long period of time would improve one’s personal experience and knowledge, leading to the efficient and successful completion of tasks. Francis et al. (2008) indicated that CEO tenure was positively associated with the financial reporting quality. Moreover, through a well-established CEO network (for example, with auditors, creditors and underwriters), the CEOs will have a quick access to important information. Information about market conditions, for instance, provides crucial market facts and highlights entrepreneurial opportunities that are beneficial for the firms; as well, CEO networks improve financial reporting quality (Hoang & Antoncic, 2003; Bhandari et al., 2018).

Moreover, with regards to the CEO gender and financial reporting quality, it is argued that the firms run by females are less preoccupied with earnings management than the firms run by males. It has also been shown that female CEOs have distinct characteristics that can positively impact the monitoring of financial reporting processes and the strategic direction of firms (Obanya & Mordi, 2014; Belot & Serve, 2018). Accordingly, based on the previous studies, CEO characteristics have had unique influences on the quality of financial reporting. Such studies have added valuable insights to the current CEO literature, which centres exclusively on CEO internal characteristics. To shed more light on the impact of CEO characteristics on firm outcomes and financial reporting quality, it is critical to investigate the CEO characteristics and different attributes of financial reporting quality, such as real earnings management and earnings forecasts, as well as examine the CEO characteristics with financial statement fraud in developing countries.


CEO characteristics are a very important topic since the CEO is one of the critical players in the corporate sector as well as sitting in the top positions of the management teams in firms, they are able to guide the firms to actively pursue opportunities, control the structures and strategies of the firms. CEOs pursue important and strategic decisions that can influence the performances of their firms. Therefore, due to the importance of this topic this paper aims to identify as to what extent the CEO characteristics influence both firm performance and financial reporting quality in the firms. In order to limit the scope of this review, this paper focused on the characteristics of the CEO. This paper also formed several criteria for the articles to be reviewed in order to guide the literature search: First, online peer-reviewed, articles or dissertations published in journals or conferences and international venues. Secondly, articles that study any of the CEO characteristics on firm performance or financial reporting quality measurements. Third, articles that clearly describe the methodology used to conduct the study such as quantitative studies. Fourthly, articles that clearly identify the top management team characteristics especially CEO characteristics. In addition, online databases such as Google Scholar, Scopus, Science Direct, Emerald Insight and EBSCOhost explores were searched to get relevant studies for this paper. Keywords used for the literature search were: “CEO characteristics”, “CEO demographics characteristics”, CEO features”, “firm performance” and “financial reporting quality”. This paper reviewed 86 research papers from leading accounting, finance and business journals and conferences. The articles were searched and ordered based on the characteristics of the CEO in relation to firm performance and financial reporting quality attributes. The review of the methodology for this paper is graphically presented in Figure 1.

Figure 1.Review Of The Methodology.

Discussion and Conclusions

The primary purpose of this paper has been to provide a review of the empirical research that investigated the relationships between CEO characteristics and both firm performance and financial reporting quality. This paper is, therefore, expected to enhance the understanding of the concerned policymakers and researchers about the roles of CEO characteristics. Overall, the outcomes of the review indicate that the roles of CEO characteristics have impacts on firm performance and financial reporting quality attributes.

Based on the review of the CEO studies, it is evinced that CEO characteristics, such as financial expertise and age, are able to discern firm performance and high quality financial information. It is important to note that such experience may positively enhance firm performance as well as the financial reporting process. As a result, information irregularity between firms and stakeholders can be reduced. In addition, CEO tenure strengthens the experience and capability of the CEOs with regard to the accounting models and areas, besides enhancing the CEOs’ capabilities to note and avert any unusual conducts. Further, this review implies that CEO networks are the determinant of CEO assurance for high quality financial reporting. Likewise, this indicates that unlike male CEOs, female CEOs avoid risks in making financial decisions, and female executives increase performance. However, all of the aforementioned studies reported mixed results which created a research gap, especially in this field. From the review, several gaps in the literature have also been identified due to the inconsistent results of previous studies. Subsequently, to fill the gaps, suggestions for future research are presented as follows. The literature review with respect to the influence of CEO characteristics on firm performance and financial reporting quality has revealed some promising avenues for future research although the findings need to be meticulously interpreted. In addition, the relationships between CEO characteristics and firm performance are not decisive. Future studies may consider the outcomes of the review and investigate further the roles of CEO characteristics based on different measurements of financial reporting quality, such as real earnings management and earnings forecasts. Although some advances have been made in understanding the link between CEO characteristics and firm performance, the area is ripe for future investigation.

In addition, the review of the empirical studies elucidated herewith suggests that there are inconclusive results on the relationships between CEO characteristics and poor financial reporting. While some studies reported a positive association, some other studies failed to document any associations at all. Thus, financial reporting quality and the perception associated it with CEO characteristics remain unclear. Furthermore, additional research is necessary to test whether CEO characteristics have different or even stronger impacts on financial statement fraud or the CEO characteristics affect the sustainability of the firm. This area may be considered as a new topic for future research as there are very limited studies to date even though it is very important to the body of knowledge, regulators and practitioners. Future studies may also consider other characteristics that would affect firm performance and financial reporting quality, such as CEO power, CEO founder, CEO ethnicity, CEO compensation, CEO ownership and CEO religiosity. Hence, this paper provides several research questions that in our opinion deserve further investigation as presented in Table 1.

Table 1: Recommended Future Directions Of Ceo Characteristics Research
No. Research Questions
CEO Characteristics and Firm Performance
RQ1 How do CEO characteristics important to firm performance?
RQ2 How do CEO characteristics namely, CEO power, CEO founder, CEO ethnicity, CEO compensation, CEO ownership and CEO religiosity affect firm performance?
CEO Characteristics and Financial reporting quality
RQ3 How do CEO characteristics important to improve the quality of financial reporting?
RQ4 Do CEO characteristics namely, CEO power, CEO founder, CEO ethnicity, CEO compensation, CEO ownership and CEO religiosity affect financial reporting quality?
RQ5 Do CEO characteristics affect Real Earnings Management?
CEO Characteristics and Financial Statement Fraud
RQ6 How do CEO characteristics affect financial statement fraud?
RQ7 How does CEO engage with financial statement fraud?
CEO Characteristics and Sustainability of the Firm
RQ8 How do CEO characteristics affect the sustainability of the firm?
RQ9 What are the important CEO characteristics that may affect the sustainability of the firm?


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