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HBR’s Top Performing CEOs List - Financial Results and Sustainability—A Complex Relationship

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 26, 2016 8:00:00 AM / by Bahar Gidwani

 

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently published its 2016 list of the world’s top 100 CEOs.  As in the past, HBR’s staff looked at the financial and ESG (environment, social, governance) performance of the CEOs of 1,200 large companies.  They used a measure of financial performance developed by a team of Harvard academics for 80% of their score.  The remaining 20% came from averaging two overall measures of corporate sustainability performance, including CSRHub.

HBR has been publishing this list since 2010 and CEOs apparently intently study their “rank” and any year-to-year changes.  The list originally included only measures of financial return.  In 2015, HBR started including ESG performance, such as those CSRHub gathers and reports.

Is there a connection between a CEO’s financial performance measure and the corporate social responsibility (CSR) or ESG performance of the CEO’s company?  Those of us who care about sustainability would expect (hope?) the answer is “Yes.”  Unfortunately, details we uncovered during this year’s rating process say that the answer is probably “Maybe” or “It depends.”

 

Are the Top 100 Different From The Rest?

CSRHub rates the perceived ESG performance of 16,550 companies in 133 countries.  We have full ratings on 1,180 of the 1,200 companies that HBR studied.  The table below compares the average performance for the top companies against the rest of the list, for community, employee, environment, and governance issues.  (HBR included 104 companies in its Top 100 list, due to a number of ties.)

 

Comparison of the CSRHub Corporate Social Responsibility Rankings for HBR Top 100 Companies and Those Not Chosen

Comparison of the CSRHub Corporate Social Responsibility Rankings for HBR Top 100 Companies and Those Not Chosen

 

As you can see, the top companies had only slightly better perceived sustainability performance than the rest of the companies.  When we adjust for the different number of companies in each of the two groups, there is a significant (P<0.02) difference only in the Community area.

This suggests that the best CEOs out of this sample of companies pay a bit more attention to issues associated with the sustainability of their Products, have good Philanthropy programs, and care about Human Rights and their Supply Chains.  But, they don’t seem to pay significantly more attention than other CEOs to issues relating to Employees, the Environment, or to their corporate Governance.  And, they still rank in their community efforts below the average of the other 15,000+ companies we track.

 

Are the Top 50 Financial Performers Better Than the Next 50?

What about the “best of the best?”  If we divide the HBR Top 100 into two groups by their HBR financial performance scores, would the top financial performers have better or worse social performance than the bottom group?

The table below shows the answer to this question.  It is probably an answer that many sustainability professionals will not want to hear.  The top financial performers had much worse perceived sustainability performance than those with somewhat worse financial performance.

Comparison of the CSRHub Corporate Social Responsibility Rankings for Top 50 Companies and the next 54 Companies as Ranked By Their HBR Financial Performance Score

 

Comparison of the CSRHub Corporate Social Responsibility Rankings for Top 50 Companies and the next 54 Companies as Ranked By Their HBR Financial Performance Score

 

These results are good evidence that some CEOs may emphasize good shareholder returns (high profit margins, high turnover of assets, strong stock performance, etc.) rather than good social performance (good community relations, happy employees, a clean environment, etc.).  Of course, the HBR study focuses only on very large, publicly-traded companies and there are only 104 companies where we have full data.  But, there is virtually no probability—P < 0.000001—that the top 50 do not trail the next 54 on both overall ratings and on all four categories of social responsibility.

 

Does It Make Sense to Combine Financial With Social?

The table above illustrates why HBR decided to integrate social issues into their ranking.  Using a single financial scale wasn’t teasing out the best CEO performance.  Using only social measures wasn’t doing it either.  Instead, HBR integrated the two measures in a balanced way that resulted in the surprising result shown below.

Comparison of the CSRHub Corporate Social Responsibility Rankings for Top 10 Companies and the next 94 Companies, as Ranked by their Overall HBR Score

 

Comparison of the CSRHub Corporate Social Responsibility Rankings for Top 10 Companies and the next 94 Companies, as Ranked by their Overall HBR Score

 

The financial scores within the Top 100 are pretty similar.  By using a social performance signal to differentiate among these financially similar performers and create an Overall HBR Score, HBR was able to pick a top group that had both good financial returns and strong sustainability performance.  This shows it is possible to both “do well” and “do good.”  Thanks to HBR, CEOs who manage this difficult balance have a shot at getting the recognition they deserve.

 


Bahar GidwaniBahar Gidwani is CEO and Co-founder of CSRHub.  He has built and run large technology-based businesses for many years. Bahar holds a CFA, worked on Wall Street with Kidder, Peabody, and with McKinsey & Co. Bahar has consulted to a number of major companies and currently serves on the board of several software and Web companies. He has an MBA from Harvard Business School and an undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy. He plays bridge, races sailboats, and is based in New York City.

 

CSRHub provides access to the world’s largest corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information.  It covers over 16,000 companies from 135 industries in 132 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 461 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices, and seek ways to improve corporate sustainability performance.

 

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