Change Your Name and You Might Become a CEO

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Apr 28, 2011

Here’s a little tidbit from LinkedIn that might help you answer a Jeopardy question or fill the conversational lull between discussing the Dodgers takeover and Lindsay Lohan’s upcoming stint in the morgue: Peter, Deborah, Bob, and Sally are among the most common names for CEOs.

It’s probably a totally meaningless analysis, but LinkedIn managed to get some PR mileage (and yes, I realize I’m playing right into that) out of scouring the 100 million profiles to find the most common CEO names.

If the research department had stopped there, it still would have warranted a water-cooler mention. But the team must have really had fun, since it dug into the various occupations and functional areas discovering such gems as:

  • “Sales professionals tend to have short names, around four letters (like Chip, Todd, and Trey).”
  • “Engineers tend to have longer names, around six letters (like Rajesh, Jeremy, and Andrew).”
  • “U.S. professionals in the food and restaurant industry tend to have longer French names (like Thierry, Philippe and Laurent).”

I’ve got my own ideas on correlation. Salespeople, (at least the good ones, in my experience), focus on developing relationships and nurturing a friendly, casual, “guy or gal next door” persona. Chip, Todd, or Cathy just sound more best-friend-informal than Theodore or Cathleen.

And the French sounding name for a chef? Do we really need to discuss that one? (Although it would be more fun if just once I walked into a restaurant and Gordon you-know-who was there in the kitchen, dishing about the running of the place.)

Anyway, the remarkable PR people at LinkedIn turned to an onomatologist for an explanation of the name associations.

“Typically hypocorisms, the shorter form of a given name, are used in intimate situations as a nickname or a term of endearment,” said Dr. Frank Nuessel, the editor of NAMES: A Journal of Onomastics (a publication of the American Name Society) and a professor of classical and modern languages at the University of Louisville.

“It’s possible that sales professionals in the U.S. and male CEOs around the world use these shortened versions of their name as a way to be more approachable and accessible to potential clients. Interestingly enough, female CEOs appear to prefer to use their full names and not nicknames, which could signify that they want to be taken more seriously and want co-workers to think of them in a more professional light.”

So now, there you have it. An official, professorial explanation for the short form usage of names by salespeople and CEOs.

Of course I couldn’t leave well enough alone, so did a little data digging myself. Not surprisingly, I found that many of the popular CEO names were also popular baby names. Deborah was popular between 1951 and 1956. Carolyn didn’t make the top five list, but Carol did.

John (of which Jack is a variant), was big for years, petering out in the early 70s. Ditto for Robert.

Considering that the average age of a CEO is around 56, we might just be seeing a correlation between popularity of baby names and the aging and career progression of the cohort.