Two prominent theoretical orientations in corporate governance research include the upper echelon perspective (e.g., Hambrick and Mason, 1984), and research examining the impression management behaviors of corporate leaders (e.g., Elsbach, 2006; Westphal and Graebner, 2010). The upper echelon perspective considers how prior managerial experiences influence decision making (Hambrick and Mason, 1984; Cannella Jr., Park, and Lee, 2008; Crossland, Jinyong, Hiller, and Hambrick, 2014); the impression management perspective looks at the organizational-stakeholder interface, considering how corporate leaders can manage the impression of external audiences such as analysts, investors, or regulators (e.g., Salancik and Meindl, 1984; Elsbach, 2006; Zott and Huy, 2007; Westphal and Graebner, 2010; Hiatt and Park, 2013).
While the two bodies of research are both connected in their focus on top management behavior, there has been little consideration of the ways in which managerial experiences can themselves be presented. Upper echelon research takes management experiences as a given, typically using employment histories to capture experiences (e.g., Crossland et al., 2014). In comparison, while the impression management perspective considers the presentation of information to influence audience expectations, this research has focused on presenting organizational activities, with little consideration of how managerial experiences are conveyed.
This article explores possibilities for integrating the perspectives, considering the subtle ways in which managerial experiences can be shaped to meet audience expectations, and the opportunities to enrich the upper echelon literature by considering the influence of how managers may conform to presented personas.
Bringing an Impression Management Orientation to Upper Echelon Research
As noted above, despite the influence of external audiences on the ability of management to successfully lead their firms (e.g., Fredrickson, Hambrick, and Baumrin, 1988; Wiesenfeld, Wurthmann, and Hambrick, 2008; Westphal and Graebner, 2010), there has been little consideration of the subtle ways in which managers may adjust the presentation of their experiences, nor the impact of these changes on the perceptions of organizational stakeholders. Research in the impression management tradition has been largely focused on the characterization of organizational activities, with the limited research considering the impact of top management experiences on external stakeholders focused on the impact of management with specific background characteristics (e.g., Chen, Hambrick, and Pollock, 2008), rather than how managerial experiences are presented.
However, while managerial backgrounds may be underpinned by accumulated experiences, there are still substantial opportunities for strategic presentation of experiences in communications with stakeholders. These opportunities arise in part because managers accumulate a broad range of experiences over their careers, that can be strategically drawn upon and tailored.
Two ways in which managers can adapt their backgrounds include re-characterizations over time, and audience-specific characterizations, where managers' backgrounds are presented differently to different organizational stakeholders.
Re-characterizations Over Time
Re-characterizing experiences over time involves changing how experiences are described in subsequent periods. This may involve describing or emphasizing different experiences, changing the order that experiences are listed, or removing (or re-including) experiences from a manager's background. Since it is easier to re-use texts from prior filings than to edit them, and re-using texts across years is common, changing a background can be considered a purposeful attempt to adjust how a manager is presented. While additions of new experiences can be justified as an update, adjusting how prior experiences are described and presented is harder to explain as new information.
While there is growing recognition that perceptions are audience-specific (e.g., Kovács and Sharkey, 2013, Ertug et al., 2016), there is very little research systematically considering how managers and firms portray themselves differently to different audiences, beyond limited case study analysis (e.g., Sutton and Callahan, 1987; Boje, 1991). One of the interesting things about management backgrounds is that they can radically vary across mediums; managers often work on different boards, and the positions and experiences that are described in these different mediums can be markedly different. Similarly, the descriptions of managers on audience-facing public websites often include different descriptions than on the more financial focused corporate filings.
Enriching the Upper Echelon Perspective: Influence of Personas on Behavior
Another possibility of integrating impression management and upper echelon research involves examining the impact of personas on managerial action, above and beyond direct management experiences.
While a large body of research indicates that individuals conform to expected behaviors (e.g., Goffman, 1959; Philipsen, 1975; Hochschild, 1983; March and Olsen, 1984), how personas shape managerial action has received little theoretical consideration. While, as noted above, substantial research in the upper-echelon tradition illustrates that managerial backgrounds influence decisions (e.g., Michel and Hambrick, 1992; Marcel, 2009; Crossland et al., 2014), the reasons why prior experiences influence decision making is less theorized; explanations still rest on the assumption that backgrounds influence managerial attention and preferences (Hambrick and Mason, 1984; Hambrick, 2005). Writing in 2005, Hambrick noted that the way in which backgrounds filter attention “has not been studied as much as it needs to be; nor, to be honest, has [the process] ever been verified” (Hambrick, 2005: 114).
Although the argument that experience influences attention and preferences is relatively taken-for-granted in the literature, it is not necessarily the entire explanation: rather the personas that managers create in presenting their backgrounds could influence audience expectations, and conformance to these role expectations (e.g., Merton, 1957), could contribute to the differences in managerial behavior, above and beyond the manager’s direct experiences. The ability to measure the decoupling of conveyed managerial experiences, including what is emphasized or omitted, from the manager’s actual experiences, provides opportunities to examine the extent to which behavior is influenced by conveyed personas, above and beyond prior experiences.
A Focus on Routine Day-to-Day Impression Management
Much work on impression management concentrates on how firms present and justify specific changes and firm actions (e.g., Arndt and Biglelow, 2000; Fiss and Zjac, 2006) or react to, and attempt to mitigate, specific negative events (e.g., Elsbach and Kramer, 1996; Mcdonnell and King, 2013). Less consideration has been given to the causes and consequences of routine day-to-day impression management, not tied to specific firm events, that firms engage in to maintain favorable impressions (although see e.g, Porac, Wade and Pollock, 1999; Westphal and Graebner, 2010). While specific announcements and crises may trigger the most direct form of impression management, the more subtle changes and adaptions to how information is presented over time and across mediums may nevertheless fundamentally influence perceptions. Moreover since such subtle changes are hard to detect - identifying slight changes between sentences over time or across mediums is hard to identify by hand - such routine, non-event triggered impression management may be less susceptible to the skepticism that can be associated with the potentially more apparent event-triggered impression management.
Identifying Subtle Changes to the Presentation of Managerial Experiences
By allowing managerial backgrounds to be systematically represented in textual structures, Menai Insight makes it possible to integrate upper echelon and impression management research to identify differences in how specific experiences are described over time and across mediums. One of the challenges with examining subtle changes to presentation of information is capturing the differences: while impression management to negate salient events (e.g., Elsbach and Kramer, 1996) is easy to identify, it is much harder to identify subtle re-characterization of information. Menai Insight's managerial background textual structures are designed to facilitate the process of systematically identifying subtle, hard to manually identify, changes between documents. By transforming entire backgrounds into standardized representations, our textual structures enable systematic comparisons of the texts, including analysis of changes to included information, how that information is characterized, and the order in which it is presented.
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