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 ExxonMobil's (NYSE: XOM) leadership.

How much skin do they have in the game?
Are ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson's interests aligned with shareholders? Here's how the ExxonMobil CEO's ownership compares to that of other companies in the industry.

CEO, Company

Shares Owned

% of Shares Outstanding

Insider Ownership Market Value (in millions)

Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil

1,390,803

0.03%

$82

John Watson, Chevron

80,157

0.00%

$6

J. Mulva, ConocoPhillips

741,685

0.05%

$40

Ray Irani, Occidental Petroleum

7,630,785

0.94%

$573

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Shares are common stock equivalents only and do not include options, awards, and other forms of compensation.

Tillerson actually owns $82 million worth of ExxonMobil, or 0.03% of shares outstanding. We Fools prefer CEOs who have higher ownership stakes in their businesses, since that better aligns their interests with shareholders'. However, while we think high insider ownership is a good sign, low insider ownership isn't necessarily a bad one. CEOs may be relatively new, or may have a low percent of shares outstanding, but a high total value of ownership. Tillerson has pursued a number of shareholder-friendly actions such as aggressively buying back shares and increasing dividends, which we'll look at again later.

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 ExxonMobil's recent return on equity:


ExxonMobil's current return on equity falls below its five-year average. 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. In Exxon's case, the fall in gas prices hit the company hard. To management's credit, its pursuing new areas of high returns, as seen by Exxon's acquisition of natural gas giant XTO earlier this year.

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, ExxonMobil's revenue per employee has moved below its five-year average. This might mean that the company's hiring too many people, or spending too much. To better see whether ExxonMobil's cost controls are actually deficient, 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

ExxonMobil

$3,114

$3,377

$2,697

(18%)

Chevron (NYSE: CVX)

$3,134

$3,138

$2,489

(21%)

ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP)

$4,562

$5,261

$4,534

(11%)

Occidental Petroleum (NYSE: OXY)

$1,765

$1,936

$1,525

(20%)

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

ExxonMobil's in the middle of its peer group here. The company's revenue versus its 5 year average bests Chevron and Occidental, but trails Conoco by seven percentage points. On an absolute basis, Conoco operates at the highest levels in the peer group.

In the end, management aims to return capital to shareholders, especially if the company can't adequately find new high-growth areas to invest in. So we're pleased to see that:

  • Dividends have increased by 9.1% annually. The company's current dividend yield stands at 3%.
  • Its outstanding share count has dropped over the past five years. While CEOs are often tempted to retain key talent through lavish stock option awards, this tactic can dilute current shareholders if it's used excessively. If the company's stock isn't overvalued, buying back its own shares is a very tax-effective way to return capital to shareholders.

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.

Jeremy Phillips owns shares of no companies listed above. Chevron is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. The Fool owns shares of ExxonMobil. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.