The C-suite comprises the most senior executives in an organisation, possessing extensive business experience and a highly focused strategic mindset. These adaptable individuals dedicate their time to high-quality decision-making and conflict resolution, among other issues, and are rightfully compensated for their strenuous efforts.
What is that intangible quality that boards look for when appointing a new Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, and others?
Here we look at the C-suite skills that boards consider to be the most important of all, focussing on:
- Yesterday’s model – why today’s c-suite executives need a different skill set
- Soft skills – what are they, and why do they matter?
- The relationship between organisation size and its focus on soft skills
- The relevance of automation to soft skills
- C-suite celebrity status
- Getting your message across
Times have changed rapidly over recent years. The pandemic, the Ukrainian war, another financial crisis and many other vital issues have significantly impacted our views. While a few years ago, the essential skills a c-suite member could have were sound knowledge and experience of their industry and related financial matters, today, strong social skills are in the ascendency. While technical and administrative expertise and a successful track record are still essential, they are no longer enough. Previous success is no guarantee of future performance nor a predictor of C-suite excellence.
While motivating teams has always been important for C-suite professionals, the teams they need to motivate have become more diverse, technologically wiser, and global. In addition, C-suite executives must deal with many different kinds of stakeholders, including governments and NGOs. As a result, they must hit the ground running despite unfamiliar territory and encountering challenges of which they were previously unaware.
Selecting candidates able to meet these criteria is a considerable challenge for executive recruiters. The old selection tools no longer work as well as they did. Yesterday’s model is being replaced with a new niftier version.
Today’s C-suite manager needs what we refer to as soft skills. These are non-technical skills that significantly impact how you perform in your role. In essence, we are talking about social skills, such as interpersonal skills in communicating, building relationships, and interacting with others.
Of course, there is nothing new here. You probably noticed that over recent years C-suite jobs have increasingly called for candidates with social skills with less weight placed on operational excellence.
People with strong social skills are naturally self-aware, listen to other people and are great communicators, can work well with anybody without prejudice, and have a well-developed theory of mind. In other words, they understand how other people think and feel.
Solid social skills are more critical in some situations than others, for instance, in larger organisations. And it’s not just C-suite executives who need them. They are becoming increasingly important across the workforce generally. We will look at these factors in more detail.
There is a strong correlation between an organisation’s size and its focus on social skills, particularly with organisations expanding through mergers and acquisitions. In such organisations, executives must take a leading role in selecting the right people for the right jobs, handling internal communications, and interfacing with the outside world, including regulators and customers. Maintaining thriving relationships with all these actors is vital and requires extraordinary social skills. Therefore, highly developed social skills are critical to success in all those areas.
The diversity and number of those relationships can be daunting. Executives at public companies have to worry not only about product markets but also capital markets. They must brief analysts, cajole asset managers, and address the business press. They must respond to various kinds of regulators across multiple jurisdictions. They’re expected to communicate well with key customers and suppliers. During mergers and acquisitions, they must attend carefully to constituents important to closing the transaction and supporting the post-merger integration. Highly developed social skills are the key to success.
Automation creates extra demands on social skills
Digital transformation is changing just about every industrial sector. It seems like everything that can be automated has been or is in the process of being automated. Managing such change that affects everyone’s jobs and how a firm interacts with its suppliers and customers requires a deep understanding of the challenges individuals and groups face at both work and personal levels.
Executives with the necessary strong social skills can excel in such roles. Moreover, they tend to be highly motivated to do so, especially when there is the opportunity to shine in the eye of the public and executives in similar roles with competitors.
Celebrity status and social media
Today, top CEOs, especially those in the technical sectors, have celebrity status. Think Elon Musk, the late Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett the list goes on. Although social media amplify their status, the phenomenon isn’t new. Henry Ford, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and many others have been household names in the past. While few CEOs gain such acclaim as those individuals, today’s C-suite executives are expected to assume a public role and represent the face of the business to customers, investors and employees. Not everyone is cut out for such a role. While some people thrive in the limelight, others may wither in the heat.
The face of social media leaves nowhere to hide. Therefore, executives must deal positively with all that comes at them and think on their feet in real-time in an unforgiving environment that can quickly grow hostile. Although historically, executives have been accountable to their various audiences, never before to the constant pressure placed on them today. To thrive in such circumstances requires extraordinary social skills and emotional intelligence.
Getting your message across
Even if you believe you have the requisite skills to become a top-flight C-suite executive, you need to be able to convince those who have a role in hiring you that you have what it takes. Furthermore, once you have landed the position you have set your heart on, you must perform at the top of your game to sustain it and keep your board members onside. Unfortunately, while recruiters know the importance of good social skills in their senior management teams, they tend to lack tools to assess how well candidates will perform in the real world.
Often recruiters turn to psychometric tests and simulations designed to assess behavioural and personality traits. While these can be revealing, they generally fail to predict the effectiveness of the individual in dealing with the kinds of pressure under which top C-suite executives must thrive. Given that recruiters tend to lack a clear recruitment methodology to divine the best candidates, getting your message across is far from easy. But that is what you must do to land that critical role.
New tools and techniques to assess c-suite candidates are being developed, often leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning while eliminating bias. But it is a long road before they can reliably deliver what they promise. In the interim, C-suite candidates should work on their soft skills
While C-suite professionals must possess the same excellence as they always have in essential administrative and operational skills, they also need highly tuned social skills to stand out from the crowd. This requirement is more heavily emphasised in larger technical and complex organisations. While these soft skills come naturally to some people, others must work hard to hone them into the skill set organisations need.
But candidates must also face the additional challenge of getting their message across. While organisations may have an insight into the skill sets they seek, they still lack the objective means of thoroughly assessing them. This will change over time, though the takeaway for candidates is to work on their social skills and ensure they are recognised.