The C-suite is evolving.
Leaders operate in a “VUCA” (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world that requires an increasing degree of nuance and soft skills from every member of leadership. Ambiguous traits like empathy, vulnerability, inspiration, creativity, and resilience have become essential elements of an executive’s job description.
This isn’t merely the personal opinion of an executive recruiter. It’s backed up by data.
Every three years, the AESC (Association of Executive Search and Leadership Consultants) releases a survey of its executive clients, gauging trends and emerging issues in the field of executive recruitment. The latest report, 2023 Global Client Perspective Views On The Executive Search And Leadership Consulting Profession, had some surprising insights into the state of modern, post-pandemic executive recruitment.
For instance, the organization reported that a CEO’s personality characteristics can account for as much as 35% of a company’s financial performance. It also shared survey results indicating the primary factors that are driving the need for top talent. The list included items such as changing business models, diversity, and an aging workforce.
The one thing that stood out above the rest was the need for new skills and capabilities for leadership roles. That category was highlighted by 65% of respondents as a major need (20% higher than the next item, which was changing business models). AESC further identified six core competencies that are in high demand across all C-suite roles. These were:
- Customer Centricity
Again, these are soft skills that everyone in leadership needs. Let’s break each of these core competencies down and consider how they impact the day-to-day operations of the 21st-century C-suite.
Adaptability Is Essential
The modern business environment is full of the unexpected. From major issues like supply chain disruption or financial stability to small-yet-significant items, like navigating your company’s latest video conference software, executives need to navigate unforeseen and unpredictable circumstances every day.
This has put adaptability in the spotlight. The academic experts at Yale succinctly define adaptability in the workplace as “a person’s ability to adjust to changes in their environment.” While this is a good start, you can go further than the simple need to adjust.
A good leader adjusts to ongoing change with poise and positivity. They operate with a mindset in which change is inevitable, and a flexible response is the best way to make the most of each pivot and course correction.
“A good leader adjusts to ongoing change with poise and positivity.”
The business world hasn’t been this fragile in years. Banks are faltering. Inflation is rampant. Cybersecurity remains an ongoing concern. War in Europe is disrupting supply chains, as is China’s sudden re-emergence into the world economy.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a CEO, CSCO, CIO, or any other C-suite officer. Change is inevitable. As each twist and turn takes place, a good leader is ready to adapt without losing their poise.
Agility Is Important
Business environments are always subject to change. But the present is particularly primed for disruption, historically speaking. From economically unexpected events like a bank collapse to the predictable rise of “Industry 4.0,” the disturbances (for better or worse) are continuous at this point, which is why agility has become a preeminent executive trait.
Agility is a soft skill that involves how individuals react to their surroundings. It is similar to adaptability in the sense that both require a willingness to remain flexible and to adjust to circumstances. But there are important distinctions that set apart agility as its own unique executive trait.
McKinsey & Company defines organizational agility as “the ability of an organization to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment.” While adaptability focuses on adjusting to change, agility is all about making quick and creative changes that optimize those adjustments.
“While adaptability focuses on adjusting to change, agility is all about making quick and creative changes that optimize those adjustments.”
For instance, a word that is often used alongside agility is “dynamic.” Deloitte goes so far as to describe dynamic companies as those “with a high potential in facing multiple challenges and opportunities.”
Agile leaders don’t just manage or mitigate change. They get the most out of it. They introduce a degree of inspirational stability to an organization that enables their teams to jump at each disruption as a chance to advance their brand.
In a world where disruption is the status quo, agile leaders stand out. They are equipped to not just stay calm in the midst of change. They can make the most of every situation.
Innovation Is Empowering
Consistency and repetition have their place in business. Procedures and processes keep warehouses humming. Techniques help craftsmen reproduce exquisite products. Engineers require consistent and predictable environments within which to code.
When it comes to the C-suite, though, consistency is a rare commodity. Leaders operate at the top of the organizational chart. They address issues, come up with solutions, and assume the risk of the unknown.
Navigating the uncertainties of the C-suite requires a unique level of innovation. The ability to come up with creative solutions for both old and new problems is part of what sets a leader apart.
The term “solutions” is important here, too. Harvard Business School makes a key clarification between innovation and creativity.
While creativity involves fostering unique ideas, innovation ensures that those new concepts aren’t just fresh. They also need to be useful. Innovation ensures that new ideas are turned into bonafide reality. Innovative leaders shepherd both their own and their team’s creativity from conception through development and delivery.
“While creativity involves fostering unique ideas, innovation ensures that those new concepts aren’t just fresh. They also need to be useful.”
Good executives are always implementing innovation. This can come on a large scale, such as a CEO overseeing the launch of a new product or service. It can also be as simple as a CHRO tweaking an existing process to optimize the onboarding process.
Whatever the circumstances might be, innovation should be a perpetual activity. Competent members of the C-suite will always be looking for ways to exercise their ingenuity.
Communication Is Critical
Communication has always been necessary for businesses to function. In the remote work world, that importance has gone up a notch — and a good leader will know how to set that tone.
Executive communication is a complex, multi-faceted skill. It requires the ability to communicate vertically both up and down the organizational chart as well as horizontally across the C-suite. Each of these interactions requires its own technique and finesse. It combines clean, professional expectations with empathy and the individual requirements of each person and circumstance.
“Executive communication is a complex, multi-faceted skill.”
The communication experts at Slack add that great leaders communicate with transparency, confidence, and listening skills. They can coach through their communication and clarify goals and expectations. They aren’t afraid to challenge others when they exchange messages or share information.
In addition, effective leaders must understand that communication doesn’t stop at sending a message. A billboard can do that. Healthy executive communication must be more comprehensive in its goals and effect. Communications experts emphasize that when a leader has effectively communicated their message, the recipient has:
- Paid attention to the message.
- Received the message as intended by the sender.
- Been persuaded by the message.
- Identified what parts of the message pertain to them.
- Have actionable takeaways or relevant information.
Everyone is aware of the need to communicate. However, only competent leaders truly understand how nuanced and complex good communication looks like — and are capable of executing their communication on a high level.
Collaboration Is Crucial
Coworkers, teams, and their leaders have always worked together in business settings. Of course, traditionally, that took place in the same space. This is no longer the case, which is why collaboration has become a top soft skill for leaders.
The pandemic led to an exodus of employees not just across their countries but, in many cases, across the world. Modern teams operate across hundreds and even thousands of miles. As they do so, the ability to collaborate has become more important than ever before — and it’s up to leaders to ensure that their teams and organizations are operating effectively as they work together from afar.
In much the same way that innovation effectively executes creative vision, collaboration uses healthy communication to achieve desired results. A good leader helps their team communicate and interact as they work toward a common goal. They encourage the sharing of diverse opinions, help make important decisions, and encourage employees to engage in their collective effort.
“A good leader helps their team communicate and interact as they work toward a common goal.”
Workflow platform Asana also underlines the need for cross-functional collaboration. That is collaboration between different departments or teams within an organization.
Once again, leaders from every corner of the C-suite must be able to take the lead here. They must establish interdepartmental and multi-group communication as they work to solve problems across distinctly different entities within their company.
From guiding their individual team members to working with other members of the C-suite, a competent leader must go beyond communication. They must possess the collaborative skills to help their teams and organizations turn communicated goals into reality as they collectively move each organization toward its goals.
Customer Centricity Is Central to Success
Despite all the changes in the modern world, one factor hasn’t changed a bit: the customer is always right. If anything, this iconic emphasis on the customer has grown in importance as data and technology have enabled more sophisticated personalization throughout customer interactions.
Competent leaders never forget the importance of the customer. They know that a customer-centric approach is essential in every stage of business. Leaders know how to prioritize the customer from the first point of contact from a member of your sales team or marketing content right on through to support after the point of purchase.
“Competent leaders never forget the importance of the customer.”
Good leaders leverage data to refine the customer experience while still maintaining a sense of human interaction. They understand that they must cater to customer needs, interests, and pain points, all with an eye toward improving the bottom line.
They operate with the perpetual filter of customer centricity, whether they’re a Chief Information Officer (CIO) implementing new security protocols, a Chief Supply Chain Officer (CSCO) shopping new vendors, or anything in between.
Gauging Executive Competency in a Post-Pandemic World
The pandemic didn’t just rewrite the executive playbook. It irrevocably altered how we hire leaders in the first place.
The move from in-person to virtual hiring alone has had dramatic consequences. The online format hampers the executive search process, as it makes in-person interactions and assessments more difficult (and in some cases, impossible).
“The pandemic didn’t just rewrite the executive playbook. It irrevocably altered how we hire leaders in the first place.”
At Stanton Chase, our executive recruiters have the tools, processes, techniques, and networks in place to identify top candidates. We also have a deep knowledge of the core competencies listed above and use them to help our clients assess and select the best individual for each position, whether they’re hiring on-site or from half a world away.
The C-suite is changing. The demands of leadership in the new normal are no longer compartmentalized to each role or position. Nor are they primarily dependent on hard skills. Soft skills like agility, communication, and innovation have become essential character traits that every leader must possess if they want to lead effectively.
About the Author
William Brewer, CCP, is a Director at Stanton Chase Los Angeles. He is also Stanton Chase’s Global Human Resources Practice Leader.
Prior to moving into executive search, Bill had 25 years of experience in corporate human resources. In addition to his executive search career, Bill is an adjunct Professor at the University of Redlands.
Bill also serves as a mentor for the MBA program at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and has been a mentor with the School of Business at the University of Redlands.