Sian Graham is chief of staff at global search firm, TritonExec
Sian Graham is chief of staff at global search firm, TritonExec

Member Article

These are the key C-Suite skills needed for leadership success right now

For years, organisations looking to fill C-Suite roles focused their search on candidates with financial, technical and administrative expertise and a wealth of experience in their industry sector. Things have changed and today those skills alone are not enough.

Firms now need executives with soft skills that enable them to build and lead high-performing teams by communicating effectively, listening and understanding how others are thinking and feeling, while making strategic decisions under pressure and responding to rapid changes in the business landscape. Similarly, leadership candidates who lack a combination of these skills, risk their careers being held back.

A recent Harvard Business Review article, entitled ‘The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most’, pointed out that since 2007, of 5000 job descriptions for C-suite positions, there has been an increase in excess of 25% for job descriptions mentioning social skills and an almost 40% decrease in those emphasizing financial management and material resource skills.

This is a trend that we are seeing across many industry sectors. Specifically, it is a shift from strategic capability as a priority attribute for candidates, to the alignment of values and a strong cultural fit. When it comes to appointing senior executives, the latter beats the former every time.

Normalising crises

A succession of crises; Brexit, the pandemic, and wars, have shown how rapidly the conditions for success can change. If organisations are to deal with that change, they need teams that are fully motivated and engaged. Expectations among employees are higher than they’ve ever been, particularly with respect to the level of sensitivity they expect from their leaders around their feelings, values, aspirations, and their wellbeing. Leadership styles have had to adapt.

Empathy prerequisite

Leaders must now be more empathetic to the individual situations of their employees. They need to spend much more of their time interacting with others, communicating information, facilitating the exchange of ideas, building and overseeing teams, and identifying and solving problems. Softer, so called social skills, are crucial.

How do organisations identify social skills, that in corporate circles are not explicitly recognised in the same way as technical expertise or exceptional administrative skills? In the world of executive recruitment, the traditional assessment criteria for C-suite candidates, such as work history, technical qualifications, and career trajectory, reveal very little about their social skills. Neither can they be easily identified in the high pressure setting of the formal interview, where the rapport needed to assess someone’s social skills is difficult to establish.

Informalise hiring

If organisations are to secure the executive skills they need to drive success, they need innovative approaches to candidate assessment. One option is the pre-interview open day event model, where executive candidates meet senior leaders from the organisation they hope to join in a social setting. The informality of such an event allows individuals to show how they engage with peers, whether they are outgoing and comfortable with strangers, and how they orientate themselves in an unfamiliar environment. It is also an opportunity to gauge that alignment of values and cultural fit ahead of the formal interview, for recruiter and candidate alike.

Recruitment technology is also developing at pace, with AI using data, algorithms, and natural language processing to analyse CVs, match candidates to jobs, and provide feedback. It’s entirely possible that AI could eventually be adapted to assess C-suite candidates’ social skills.

Candidates, too, are finding new ways of improving and strengthening the softer, more culture-orientated side of their skills offering and demonstrating it to potential employers, in particular, via their social media presence. Blogs, podcasts, and thought leadership pieces are being nuanced to communicate news and views using a slightly softer approach. Executive coaching increasingly includes a focus on social skills, communicating their values and aspirations, the art of self-leadership, and the development of their personal brand, as distinct from the organisation’s brand.

Aligning experience and social skills

Some candidates will adapt to this shift in priority of social skills and cultural alignment more easily than others. For those who are set to ascend to higher levels of senior leadership within the next five or 10 years have the advantage of this having been engrained in them throughout their earlier career progression. It is the more established individuals, who’ve operated at senior levels for a number of years who are facing rapid change across a very short timeline and will therefore be feeling the pressure to demonstrate the skill set now required to successfully lead a myriad of personalities across different markets and industries in an increasingly challenging business world. Over the years they will have amassed a wealth of life and work experience, but might never have had to focus on the importance of social skills as much as they do now. At C-suite level, this is a game changer.

The reality is that when it comes to choosing between two candidates with impeccable management pedigrees, the one with the strongest social skills and cultural alignment will have the edge, because culture will always eat strategy for lunch.

In a world where employees are more empowered and more engaged, the need for leaders with exceptional social skills cannot be underestimated. The challenge for organisations will be how easily they can acquire their share of this new generation of leadership talent. Success will depend to a large degree on effective evaluation of the social skills of candidates, and perhaps more importantly, their efforts to make the development of social skills integral to their talent-management strategies.

Sian Graham is chief of staff at global search firm, TritonExec

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by David Stoch .

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