HOW EXECUTIVES THINK A growing body of research suggests that managerial minds work differently from everybody else's.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The people at the top put their pants or skirts on just like you and me, right? Sure, they may draw down those fancy salaries, but for what? For politicking their way up the ladder and then taking the heat on all those big decisions, right? Okay, so some may be a little smarter than the average Joe, but when it comes down to it, they don't think any differently from you and me, right? Wrong, on every count but the pants and skirts, about which there isn't good research. After years of studying the subject, certain path-breaking behavioral scientists have concluded that there is indeed something distinctive about the workings of the executive mind. While the researchers don't agree on all the particulars, their findings overlap enough to suggest rough consensus on what it is that those high-priced noggins do differently. A near-genius IQ by itself doesn't guarantee superior managerial thinking. The expert who has probably toiled longest in this particular vineyard is Elliott Jaques, the director of the Institute of Organization and Social Studies at England's Brunel University. To call Jaques a polymath rather understates his qualifications: he holds a Ph.D. in social relations --sociology, psychology, and anthropology--from Harvard and an M.D. from Johns Hopkins; trained as a psychoanalyst, he is a Founder Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatry; more to the point here, he conducted what may be the longest-running research project ever done on a corporation--a study of Glacier Metal Co., a British metals engineering outfit, that lasted from 1948 until the late 1970s. These days Jaques is working with clients that range from the U.S. Army to an Australian mining company. At the heart of Jaques' findings is a concept he calls the time frame of the individual. His research indicates that individuals vary radically in terms of the time periods they can think out, organize, and work through. It taxes some folks to figure out what they have to do today, and in what order. Others --namely executive types--can see a long way, identifying the steps necessary for some move that will take years to complete, envisioning the consequences of each step, and then taking the measures to set the juggernaut in motion. Over a lifetime a person typically becomes capable of handling progressively longer time frames. This development isn't smoothly incremental, though--it's discontinuous, occurring in spurts that carry the individual from a one-day time frame to a three-month time frame, and thence, after a decent interval at each stage, to one-year, two-year, five-year, ten-year, and 20-year time frames. The statistical distribution of people capable of the different time frames is also discontinuous: most of the population is never capable of more than a three-month time span; a smaller group is capable of envisioning an entire year, and so on; only one individual out of several million, Jaques estimates, is ever capable of a 20-year time frame. Though loath to speculate on the time frames of people he hasn't tested, Jaques does note that Konosuke Matsushita has laid down a 250-year plan for the giant Japanese company that bears his name. What makes this stuff dynamite in a corporate context is Jaques' additional finding that there is a sort of natural structure to organizations engaged in work, wherein most jobs can be classified according to the time frame required of the incumbent. An unskilled shop-floor worker can almost always get by with no more than a one-day time horizon. A person holding down the lowest level managerial job, if he's to be any good at it, must be capable of at least a three-month time frame. Jaques' research shows that the best organizations, in terms of morale and productivity, are those whose structure follows what might be called the natural hierarchy: one-day time frame workers report to a foreman who can organize at least the next three months; he follows the dictates of a manager who can plan a year or longer; he reports to a general manager with a two-year time frame; he answers to a vice president capable of charting strategy over five years. Atop it all sits a chief executive who can cast his mind forward to encompass the next ten or more years. In common parlance this ability, much sought after in executives, is called vision. For a rough handle on where you fit, think about the most distant deadline you feel comfortable with. Jaques believes that time frame is the best indicator of the broader mental capabilities that psychologists call cognitive power. Cognitive power is not IQ--it reflects not raw brainpower but how someone's perception and thinking are organized, how they operate. Jaques concludes that an individual capable of thinking out a year ahead has one level of cognitive power, someone capable of thinking out two years, the next level. Each level, Jaques hypothesizes, has a characteristic mode of thinking, but his descriptions of the different modes remain a bit murky. For example, an individual working with a maximum time frame of up to one year is capable of something called reflective articulation--he can stand back from the work he supervises, articulate what is going on, form ideas about it, and then play with these ideas. A person capable of thinking out ten years can ''shape whole systems''--he can understand how a large organization like a corporation fits together, imagine how its boundaries might be expanded, say by charging into completely new markets, and reason through the second- or third-order consequences of such a move. T HE CONCLUSIONS drawn by other students of executive intelligence are less cosmic. While each researcher is quite willing to point out how his findings differ from everyone else's, to an outsider's eye most of the work appears to support the proposition that executives' thinking differs from others' in at least three ways: Senior managers display a greater capacity for what Siegfried Streufert, a psychologist at the Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, calls differentiation. For several years Streufert has been putting executives and others of approximately equal IQ-type intelligence through complicated decision-making exercises. He has compared the performance of good managers, as judged by their companies, and lesser ones from the same companies. Streufert finds that successful managerial types can see distinctions between similar-appearing phenomena better than laymen do, and that good managers are also more prone to consider the same fact from different perspectives. In particular, managerial adepts are capable of seeing a matter from someone else's point of view. Wallace Stevens, who besides being one of America's foremost poets was a vice president of the Hartford Accident & Indemnity Co., wrote a poem entitled ''Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird''--just routine cognition for vice presidents, apparently. Along the same line, in comparing the cogitation of executives with that of bright undergraduates, Professor Daniel J. Isenberg of the Harvard Business School observed that the students were much more likely to consign a particular fact to some larger category in an effort to understand it --executives weren't nearly so ready to categorize. Yale psychology professor Robert Sternberg and one of his graduate students, Janet Davidson, have done research that suggests that managers have a cognitive ability that they label ''selective encoding'': the executive brain can quickly sort the relevant from the irrelevant. This gives them an edge in recognizing and defining a problem where others see only a jumble of business as usual. Executives display a distinctive talent for what Streufert calls integration, which is somewhat similar to what Sternberg and Davidson term selective combination and selective comparison. Having picked out the salient facts, managers put them together in ways that other folks don't, positing a causal connection here, speculating on a possible analogy there. To use Streufert's term, good managerial thinking is multidimensional. Isenberg found that managers were much more willing to draw inferences than were the students he tested. The business types would proceed with their thinking while the students were still asking for more information. Executives were also more adept at jumping from abstract levels of thought to the particular, and back again. Isenberg suspects that managers may, in fact, pay less attention to isolated pieces of information than others do--the big thinkers have learned it's more effective to spend their time putting everything together. All the researchers noted a managerial knack for dredging up from their memories solutions to past problems to see how those solutions might shed light on the problem at hand. & Managerial thought is, apparently, distinctively flexible. Isenberg found, for example, that executives began to plan the actions they would take to solve a problem much earlier in the thinking process than the students did. The executives would do some analysis, plan, look at the world and do more analysis, and then plan some more. Streufert and Sternberg have detected a similar willingness to modify plans in light of emerging reality. Based on his observation of execs in action, Isenberg speculates that often managers simply take the minimum action possible that will still keep their outfit in the game and then wait for the unfolding play to present what looks like a better opportunity. In other respects, the findings of the different researchers still need to be reconciled. Jaques, for example, believes that Streufert's research results support his own more sweeping conclusions. Streufert sees big differences. He agrees that executives can put together elaborate strategic plans, but he finds that only the immediate steps are thought through in detail--the later parts are left unclear, awaiting further information--and the plans need not cover any particular period of time. Resume normal breathing, managerial types--the era of a standardized college-board-type test to determine your executive thinking ability isn't at hand quite yet.