Why LinkedIn’s "Top CEO Names" list isn’t very useful

LinkedIn is getting a lot of buzz from the data on names it pulled from its admittedly impressive trove of executives and professionals. It’s always fun to play with data, and there are amusements, such as restaurant workers being decidely French in their first names — or aliases.

But, really, what does it mean that the most popular names for male CEOs are Peter, Bob, Jack, Bruce and Fred (and, for female CEOs, Debra, Sally, Deborah, Cynthia and Carolyn), and that short names do better in general? And moreover, what should you do when naming your children if you want to make them CEOs some day? 

The easy answer, of course, is nothing.

The average CEO is between the ages of 50 and 70, right? Let’s make that assumption. In other words, accounting for CEOs who are still 49 or not yet 71 this year, we have a date of birth between 1940 and 1961. Thanks to the wonderful BabyNameWizard.com, we can look at the most popular U.S. names by decade, which at least gives us an approximation. For Bob and Jack, I’m including the proper birth names Robert and John, as well as Bobby.

Two caveats: I don’t have age data for the CEOs using the service, and LinkedIn’s data is global, though the U.S. is the leading country by percentage and number of members. Still, one might expect the latter fact to benefit looking at U.S. data on older CEOs, as later-developing economies could have fewer older CEOs, much less ones on LinkedIn.

Anyways, the rank of those U.S. names, by decade:

Name 1940s 1950s
Peter 41st 39th
Bob (Bobby, Robert) 114th (48th, 2nd) 201st (75th, 3rd)
Jack (John) 35th (3rd) 60th (4th)
Bruce 39th 52nd
Fred (Frederick) 51st (73rd) 94th (87th)

Name 1940s 1950s
Debra 302nd 7th
Sally 65th 94th
Deborah 68th 5th
Cynthia 47th 11th
Carolyn 12th 25th

Certainly, these are not all top 10, but none is an obscure name, even Sally (a healthy rate of 1,200-1,500 babies per million). Some of the names were even more popular in the 1930s, probably influencing the names of older (mostly male) CEOs still hanging on. These are not names of people whose families are new to the United States and/or, stereotypically, from a lower economic culture. And when factoring in the baby boom and the longer proper names that likely adorn many of today’s nicknamed CEOs, it can’t surprise many that popular names in 1940s and 1950s America would correlate with names of today’s private-sector leaders.

Need more? With less name diversity back then, a rank of XX was worth more names per million babies than a similar ranking is today — making the influence of a name of the 49-to-71 crowd greater than on today’s children. Look at Bruce, for example. According to Social Security data, that name was 26th in 1950 alone, accounting for 0.69% of male births, or 12,664 babies. The 26th-most popular baby name in 2009, with a vastly larger U.S. population, was John, with 11,958 births, or 706 fewer — and only 0.57% of male births.

For some names, the disparity can be greater: Debra and Deborah, at 2nd and 4th, combined for 5.12% of female births (over 113,000 births). You would need to combine the top six female names in 2009 to beat that percentage (and about half of the 7th-ranked name for total births).

So, what can we conclude, if a bit rashly, what we already knew: Lots of white people were born in the 1940s and 1950s with very white (e.g., dull) names that also lend themselves to short nicknames, and many of them are CEOs today who use LinkedIn. LinkedIn’s data is terribly important, and in ways most of us (including me) can’t imagine, but this “scoop” by them is little more than tremendously successful public relations.