First-born kids become CEO material

The oldest children are like surrogate parents, says Jim McCann, CEO of 1-800-Flowers flws and the oldest of five. That means they learn parental skills in childhood, such as offering encouragement and setting limits for what will be tolerated, skills that remain valuable to CEOs, he says.

The impact can also be small and incremental. Michael Koss, CEO of stereo headphones maker Koss, koss remembers going to the candy store with his four younger siblings in tow and having 25 cents for each. He put each sibling's change into a separate pocket, his first lesson in accounting.

The darker side, jokes Mike Bolen, CEO of McCarthy Building and the oldest of two boys, is that first-borns get "early training in taking full credit for anything good that happens, and blaming baby brother for anything that goes wrong. That serves first-born children well as they maneuver up the corporate ladder."

Eldest children become leaders, though not necessarily "quality" leaders, says first-born Adam Sewall, CEO of telecommunications company T3 Communications. True, they are pioneers, he says, but "a lot of pioneers end up with arrows in their backs."

Many first-born CEOs said they have more intelligent brothers and sisters. And younger siblings say their smarter brothers and sisters don't always have the business drive.

David Cline, CEO of Balboa Instruments, has an older brother "many more times intelligent than me," who retired at about 55 as a computer consultant, was never an executive, and now plays volleyball on the beach.

They're not sure they're any happier than their less accomplished siblings, but first-born CEOs — being both confident and fearful of losing rank — say they're certain that they make better leaders, if only because leadership is flat-out expected of older children.

Not a slam dunk

Of course, many successful CEOs were not the first born. Southwest Airlinesluv CEO Gary Kelly was, but former Southwest CEO Howard Putnam was the baby on an Iowa farm. "My two talented and intelligent older sisters supported me in every endeavor," he says.

And Dattner says that there's growing evidence that first-born CEOs aren't always the best choice. They can solve problems and can usually drive through incremental improvements, but later-born CEOs are more likely to take risks and challenge the status quo. They're born into families where someone is already occupying the niche of academic achiever, so they seek out other creative ways to blaze their own path.

CEOs who were the babies in the family believe that the next generation of CEOs will more often come from their ranks because they grew up with more freedom and fewer boundaries. Luis Rivera, a baby brother and CEO of e-mail software company J.L. Halsey, jlhy says when he was a child at his first ski lesson, he decided to "launch himself downhill." His older brother said he was crazy. "Yet, in his eyes, I could see he was impressed," Rivera says. "The order of birth has little to do with it. It's mostly our risk tolerance."

Patrick Sweeney, CEO of computer firm Odin Technologies and a champion rower, says he never had his older brother's strength, which taught him to "compete against the likes of IBM or (Hewlett-Packard)."

Similarly, Ben Golub, CEO of tech company Plaxo, says being the youngest of two boys toughened him up, but said he could not elaborate — too big a risk "my big brother would give me a noogie."

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