Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship
London Business School

Deal-eager executives – tribal instincts

Why is it that top managers often seem to become so gung-ho on acquisitions? Take Ahold’s “fallen-from-grace” ex-CEO (now corporate convict) Cees van der Hoeven. Ahold actually started out with quite a careful approach to doing take-over deals, but over the years acquired itself completely out of control, like a Faliraki girl with a credit card in a Gucci store.

My guess is there are two causes of deal-eager executives. It is the type of person who becomes CEO and it is the type of person we make them. Let me discuss the first one with you.

An interesting line of research in social anthropology analysed what type of person is more likely to rise through the ranks to become the headman of a tribe. Often, this would be the most fierce, ambitious and aggressive warrior, who would be willing to take on all his opponents in the quest for leadership.

Yet, interestingly, although characteristics such as fierceness and ambition would be helpful in becoming tribe leader, these characteristics were not necessarily positive for the future of the settlement, since these type of leaders were prone to take the tribe to war. This would ultimately take its toll on the size, strength and survival chances of the tribe. Thus, the same characteristics that would make people more likely to become the headman, were likely to get the tribe in to trouble.

CEOs might not be all that different. Those people who are ambitious, risk-seeking and aggressive enough to be able to rise to the ultimate spot of CEO, just might be the same people who, once they’re there, take their firm on a conquest.

Acquisitions offer the thrill of the chase. You select a target, mobilise resources and lead the attack. Sometimes there are others eyeing your prey but skilful manoeuvring and a fierce battle will make you come out victorious again. And another victory means pictures in the newspapers, popping champagne, and a larger tribe to rule and command.

2 Comments for “Deal-eager executives – tribal instincts”

  • Annelies says:

    Hi Freek. Great initiative to start this blog! And great story. Did you ever read the book “Het Drama Ahold” which discloses some juicy details about personalities and relationships within Ahold?

  • Freek says:

    Hi Annelies. Thanks for the comments and the book tip, but yes I happened to have read that book. I came across it when I was doing a study on Ahold ( and I too think the book provides a great view and thorough analysis on how a once very successful company (and CEO) descends into chaos and hubris

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