The Changing Skill Set of the C-Suite

team leaders meeting

by Christine Hayward. Executive Director for IIC Partners

What does it take to be an effective leader?

A decade ago, the answer would have been technical knowledge, experience across the c-suite, business acumen, and the ability to make tough decisions.

Today’s answer looks different.

Executives still need technical knowledge and business savvy. However, they also need an expanded skill set that includes navigating change, digital expertise, motivating a diverse workforce, and displaying empathy to employees, customers, and shareholders.

A recent survey from IBM found that executives are shifting their priorities to be better prepared for uncertainty in the future — the pandemic highlighted how soft skills such as compassion and effective communication are must-haves for any business leader. 

However, these changes have been coming for some time.

For example, Satya Nadella beat out other existing CEOs for the position of Microsoft CEO in 2014, including Microsoft’s COO.

He was an internal hire with deep technical knowledge but also had the soft skills needed to succeed. Microsoft saw his clear vision, open and transparent communication, courage, humility, and empathy as essential skills to lead the organisation on a new path of transformation. 

Nadella embraces a growth mindset, which means employees are allowed to make mistakes without fearing severe repercussions. Further, he communicates effectively, delivering company-wide emails with honest, tangible thoughts, not just corporate fluff.

Since Nadella became CEO, Microsoft has experienced massive growth. It is once again a leading player in tech and among the most valuable companies worldwide.

Other companies are recognising the need to rethink what a CEO looks like. For example, Starbucks is searching for a “different type of leader” who will bring new expertise, skills, and experience to the CEO role to help the company rethink its future.

What does it mean to have soft skills?

Unlike technical skills acquired through knowledge sharing, soft skills are personal traits and characteristics that define how a person interacts and builds relationships with the people around them. Some examples include:

  • Empathy
  • Critical thinking
  • Problem-solving and decision making
  • Effective communication
  • Teamwork and collaboration
  • Stress management (on individual and team levels)

Soft skills can be hard to identify since they do not readily appear on a resume or job application. So, how can you find a leader who meets these new standards? 

Many organisations have developed advanced assessment and recruiting techniques to evaluate and track soft skills. A recent whitepaper by IIC Partners on shaping culture and assessing candidate fit gave a few examples:

  • AI and candidate self-assessment tools
  • Conversational interviews that evade canned responses
  • Extensive references with a soft-skill focus
  • Chemistry observations between employer and candidate

Expanding beyond standard recruitment processes can lead to great results, like the method suggested by Allan Laurie, Managing Partner of NOVUS Search Partners, “A client/candidate scenario work through during interviews draws both the candidate and client stakeholder group closer, and also reveals much about how each might work or react.”

Undoubtedly, it takes more effort than evaluating technical knowledge. But a failed hire is far more costly. In LinkedIn’s 2019 Global Talent Trends Report, 89 percent of recruiters said failed hires were due to a lack of soft skills.

Can soft skills be developed in existing leaders?

While soft skills are more associated with an individual’s personality than hard skills, the right approach can enhance these traits in executive leaders. The core requirements are a commitment to self-awareness from the employee and an effective measurement and development process from the employer. 

An article from McKinsey highlighted how HR teams need to embrace entirely new frameworks to match shifting requirements and employ a wide range of techniques beyond training videos, such as peer coaching and “stepping-stone” development paths. 

The impact of this work cascades through the organization as behavior modeling by upskilled leaders encourages the desired traits and ways of working in other employees. 

However, developing soft skills in leaders and influencing culture is a long-term process. Like the Starbucks example given earlier, there are many times that organizations need an injection of new talent with specific experiences and skill sets. 

Article first appeard on HRM Search Partners