CEO Skills Jul, 2022

What are the most in-demand skills of a 21st century CEO?

By Michael Bowden | Share:

What are the desirable skills for a modern day post-pandemic CEO and how has this changed from the traditional skill set previously expected of one of the highest ranking roles in a business?

A recent study completed by Harvard Business Review explores this in detail. However, before we examine their findings let’s unpack what historically a company who was hiring C-Suite executives would look for in successful candidates.

Typically desirable traits would include:

  • Technical expertise
  • Superior administrative skills
  • A proven track record of successful financial resource management

However, since the dawn of the millenium, so much has changed in the world of work and it’s no longer managerial pedigree that guarantees success in senior leadership roles. On the contrary, today’s firms are looking for CEOs and C-suite executives whose skills include:

  • Being able to motivate diverse, technologically savvy, and often global, workforces
  • To expertly play the role of corporate statesperson
  • Having the ability to effectively communicate with sovereign governments to influential NGOs

They will also frequently be expected to rapidly apply these skills in a new company in an unfamiliar industry. Bearing in mind that these new and often ‘softer’ skills can be harder to quantify, it leaves executive recruiters with a phenomenal challenge to source these required capabilities.

So what’s the solution?

First and foremost, it’s crucial to fully understand what skills are required, for example what exactly are ‘soft skills’ and just how in demand are they from businesses?

Soft skills refer certain specific capabilities, including:

  • High levels of self-awareness
  • Able to listen and communicate well
  • Adept at working with different types of people and groups
  • The capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling—what psychologists call “theory of mind”

To understand exactly how desirable these skills were to employers, HBR’s approach was to work with executive search firm Russell Reynolds to analyse 5,000 job descriptions dating from 2000 to 2017. This included CEO roles and also four other key leaders in the C-suite: the chief financial officer, the chief information officer, the head of human resources, and the chief marketing officer.

They observed that whilst the previously mentioned capabilities still remained highly relevant, it was social skills that were in the greatest demand from companies.

Why this change?

As businesses grow and become considerably more complex, demands for a leadership team that are excellent communicators, to facilitate the exchange of ideas, building and overseeing teams, and identifying and solving problems, feels like natural evolution.

When observing the modern day challenges for CEOs, the ability to empathically and proactively deal with issues of diversity and inclusion is also another requirement that demands strong social skills. If a leader can easily ensure all employees feel truly represented this will help cultivate an environment where talent thrives.

Management guru Peter Drucker wrote several decades ago ‘the more we automate information-handling, the more we will have to create opportunities for effective communication’.

HBR’s analysis found a correlation between companies that rely on information-processing technologies and their need for leaders with strong social skills. However, this wasn’t just at leadership level but was in fact a requirement for all employees.

How to acquire and recruit for these skills

Considering past methods to measure a candidate’s skills like psychometric tests, where do we begin in establishing if someone understands the importance of theory of mind? This particular skill has to be evaluated at the interview stage, by a recruitment panel that’s trained to identify this.

Another good indicator is references, however if a company is relying on an executive search firm to discreetly execute the hiring of a particular individual this can be problematic due to confidentiality reasons.

Another good indicator is references; however when navigating senior hires, it can be difficult to obtain these ahead of a candidate’s move for confidentiality reasons. I might be slightly biased here, but the beauty of working with executive search firms is their ability to conduct discreet due diligence as not only can they seek out soft references from people in their comprehensive networks but they have an array of digital deep-dives they can do into a person’s background.

There are also lots of long term solutions that businesses can begin to put in place immediately. Offering training and cultivating social skills within a company will help create and shape the future leaders of your workforce. Also educators and business schools have an important role to play here by placing more emphasis on the importance of learning social skills.

For recruiters, it’s up to us to ensure we can identify a candidate’s emotional intelligence, which in my view, is already a soft skill requirement on the recruiter’s part. Therefore first looking inwards to assess our understanding of social skills is the fundamental first step.

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