Executives make it to the senior level largely because they are effective decision makers. Learning mostly from experience, they build a set of criteria that guides them. Each decision is influenced by both reason and emotion, but the weight given to each of these elements during the decision-making process can vary widely depending on the person.

In a two-year project, we studied the decision-making styles of more than 1,600 executives across a wide range of industries. We interviewed participants about various facets of their decision-making processes. For instance, how strong was their desire to have others educate them about the issues involved in a particular decision? How willing were they to move beyond the status quo? How much risk were they comfortable with in making the decision? These characteristics and preferences are often set early in a businessperson’s career and evolve based on experience. In other words, people have a natural tendency toward a certain style of decision making that gets reinforced through successes—or that changes after repeated failures.

We found that executives typically have a default style of decision making that lands them in one of five distinct categories: charismatics, thinkers, sceptics, followers, and controllers.

We performed a cluster analysis of these data and found that the executives’ behaviours fell into the five groupings described below. For many of the prominent CEO examples cited, the categorizations are based on our firsthand observations and experiences with those executives; other categorizations are based on secondary sources, including media accounts.

This information is intended to be neither exhaustive nor definitive, and most executives will exhibit only some of the traits we list. Nevertheless, knowing the general characteristics of the different styles can help you better tailor your presentations and arguments to your audience. Unfortunately, many people fail in this regard. In our experience, more than half of all sales presentations are mismatched to the decision- maker’s style. Specifically, close to 80% of all sales presentations focus on sceptics and controllers, but those two groups accounted for just 28% of the executives we surveyed.


Who are they: Charismatics account for 25% of all executives we polled. They are easily intrigued and enthralled by new ideas, but experience has taught them to make final decisions based on balanced information, not just emotions.

The people: Richard Branson, Herb Kelleher

Characteristics: Enthusiastic, captivating, talkative, dominant

Bottom line: When trying to persuade a charismatic, fight the urge to join his excitement. Focus the discussion on results. Make simple and straightforward arguments, and use visual aids to stress the features and benefits of your proposal.

Buzzwords: Results, proven, action, watch, clear, focus


Who are they: Followers account for 36% of all executives we surveyed. They make decisions based on how they’ve made similar choices in the past or how other trusted executives have made them. They tend to be risk-averse.

The people: Carly Fiorina, Douglas Daft

Characteristics: Responsible, cautious, brand-driven, bargain-conscious

Bottom line: Followers tend to focus on proven methods. References and testimonials are big persuading factors. They need to be certain that they are making the right decision; specifically that others have succeeded in similar initiatives.

Buzzwords: Innovate, expedite, expertise


Who are they: Controllers account for 9% of the executives we interviewed. They avoid uncertainty and ambiguity and will focus on pure facts and analytics of an argument.

The people: Martha Stewart, Jacques Nasser

Characteristics: Logical, unemotional, sensible, detail-oriented, accurate, analytical

Bottom line: Your argument needs to be structured and credible. The controller wants details but only if presented by an expert. Don’t be too aggressive in pushing your proposal. Often, your best bet is to simply give him the information he needs and hope that he will convince himself.

Buzzwords: Details, facts, reason, power, handle, physical, grab, just do it


Who are they: Sceptics account for 19% of the executives we surveyed. They tend to be highly suspicious of every data point presented, especially the information that challenged their workflow. They often have an aggressive, almost combative, style and are usually described as take-charge people.

The people: Steve Case, Larry Ellison

Characteristics: Demanding, disruptive, disagreeable, rebellious

Bottom line: You need as much credibility as you can garner. If you haven’t established enough influence with a Sceptic, you need to find a way to have it transferred to you prior to or during the meeting. For example, try gaining an endorsement from someone the sceptic trusts.

Buzzwords: Feel, grasp, power, action, suspect, trust, demand, disrupt


Who are they: Thinkers account for 11% of the executives we surveyed and can be the toughest executives to persuade. They are impressed with arguments that are supported by data. They tend to have a strong aversion to risk and can be slow to make a decision.

The people: Michael Dell, Bill Gates

Characteristics: Cerebral, logical, intelligent, academic

Bottom line: Have lots of data ready. Thinkers need as much information as possible, including market research, customer surveys, case studies cost-benefit analysis. They want to understand all perspectives of a given situation.

Buzzwords: Quality, academic, numbers, intelligent, plan, expert

This article was first published on www.hbrascend.in. HBR Ascend is a digital learning platform for graduating students and millennials.