I know it sounds ludicrous, but investors often overlook the people in charge of protecting their investments. The idea of gauging a company's leadership plays second-fiddle to other categories of analysis. However, at Fool.com we believe careful study of effective leadership is one of the most important areas of evaluating long-term winning investments.

We like CEOs who actually work for shareholders like us. After all, we're the true owners of the business. When you're deciding whether to invest in a company, failing to vet its CEO is a big mistake. In fact, if you've overlooked the study of a company's leadership, then that's the one important area you should know about before finalizing your investment in the company.

After reviewing thousands of companies over dozens of years, we've found several crucial characteristics of quality management. Today, we'll size up the recent performance of Continucare's (AMEX: CNU) leadership.

How much skin do they have in the game?
Are Continucare CEO Richard Pfenniger's interests aligned with shareholders? Here's how the Continucare CEO's ownership compares to that of his peers in the health care services industry.

CEO, Company

Shares Owned

% of Shares Outstanding

Insider Ownership Market Value (in millions)

Richard Pfenniger, Continucare

1,079,743

1.80%

$4

Stephen Hemsley, Unitedhealth Group

2,723,408

0.24%

$89

Alexander Cunningham, WellCare Health Plans

16,361

0.04%

$0.4

Michael Earley, Metropolitan Health Networks

441,466

1.09%

$2

Jay Higham, Integramed America

164,637

1.41%

$2

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Richard Pfenniger owns $4 million worth of Continucare, or 1.80% of shares outstanding. When CEOs invest a significant amount of their net worth in their own companies, we believe they're more likely to act in ways that generate long-term gains. This will ultimately increase shareholder value and their own wealth.

How well are they using your money?
Return on equity can help investors determine how adeptly management gets the job done. This metric combines how well management is expanding profitability, managing assets, and using financial leverage, all in one ratio. While return on equity isn't foolproof -- managers can manipulate it with excessive leverage, for example -- it does an excellent job of suggesting how effective managers are, and how well they can generate high returns on investors' capital.

Here's a look at Continucare's recent return on equity:


Continucare's current return on equity falls below its five-year average, although it has been on the rise recently. While recent economic conditions have been challenging, declining return on equity shows either that management hasn't been able to control costs and manage assets, or that it's failed to move into higher-return businesses over the last five years.

How productive are their workers?
Revenue per employee provides another way to gauge a CEO's effectiveness. If this metric is declining, the company might have a bloated organizational structure, or too many extra employees toiling away at new initiatives that just aren't working out. Either possibility would hint that management isn't effectively running the organization.


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

As you can see, Continucare's revenue per employee has moved above its five-year average. Rising revenue per employee can suggest that management's getting better at controlling costs, or encouraging more productivity from its workers. To better see whether Continucare's management is excelling in this area, let's compare the company to its peer group once again:

Company

2005

2007

2009

Last Year's Revenue Per Employee vs. 5-Year Average

Continucare

$440

$386

$461

4%

Unitedhealth Group (NYSE: UNH)

$955

$1,233

$1,082

3%

WellCare Health Plans (NYSE: WCG)

$872

$1,212

$1,591

35%

Metropolitan Health Networks

$1,180

$1,119

$1,782

36%

Integramed America (Nasdaq: INMD)

$145

$141

$192

21%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Dollar figures in thousands.

Continucare's been growing its revenue per employee, but it still lags its peer-group average.

These are just a few of the factors we look for in a company's management. If you can find leaders who continually give shareholders high returns on their capital, and align their interests with yours, you've got a better chance to enjoy market-beating returns for the long haul.

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Jeremy Phillips does not own shares of the companies mentioned. UnitedHealth Group is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation and a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on UnitedHealth Group, of which The Fool owns shares. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.