Executive Skills Have Evolved; Are Yours Still Marketable?

Executive Skills Have Evolved; Are Yours Still Marketable?

Think your executive skills make you marketable? An eye-opening study found that, since 2000, companies have significantly redefined the role of C-suite executives – along with the skills necessary to fill those roles.

Two professors from Harvard Business School and an economics professor from University College London partnered with executive search firm Russell Reynolds to study skills that are in demand, how they have evolved over time, and how the candidate selection process among companies has consequently changed. They published their findings in The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most.”

Russell Reynolds gave the professors unprecedented access to nearly 5,000 job descriptions that the company had developed with clients between 2000 and 2017. With this data, the researchers were able to study the expectations of CEOs and other C-level roles during that period. The results are fascinating. 

“For a long time, whenever companies wanted to hire a CEO or another key executive, they knew what to look for: somebody with technical expertise, superior administrative skills, and a track record of successfully managing financial resources…That practice now feels like ancient history,” wrote the authors.

“So much has changed during the past two decades that companies can no longer assume that leaders with traditional managerial pedigrees will succeed in the C-suite. “…[W]hen companies today search for top leaders, especially new CEOs, they attribute less importance to those capabilities than they used to and instead prioritize one qualification above all others: strong social skills.”

“C-Suite Skills” was published in 2018. In the years since, the trend they report has only  sped up. Why? Well, the workplace has changed in ways we never imagined. So, perhaps a better question is: If you see yourself entering the job market any time soon, are your skills still marketable?

The Evolving Landscape of Executive Skills

Myriad drivers have shaped the workplace over the last two decades. In the early days, globalization, geopolitical events (e.g. 9/11), and economic shifts (e.g. the Great Recession) vexed business leaders. The rise of social media and growing concerns about climate change followed. These all continue to be important business influences today, of course. Customers, vendors, and employees, alike, increasingly want to know where companies stand on issues that are important to them, which spurs the growing number of stakeholders to whom executives must answer.

By 2018, digital transformation and e-commerce were revolutionizing business operations and consumer behavior. Predictions then of what the future held were nothing short of a full-scale revolution of the global order of business. Consider this 2017 statement from Boston Consulting Group: “A tidal wave of change is coming that will soon make the way we work almost unrecognizable to today’s business leaders.”

Since then, even more forces have upended the work world. The pandemic, social movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, which pressed issues of diversity into the board room, and the emergence of generative AI are just a few examples.

As a result, the requisite executive skill set has seen a dramatic makeover. Remote and hybrid work compels executives to be virtual maestros, keeping teams connected and motivated from afar. With DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) now at the forefront, leaders must balance fostering an inclusive culture with driving performance and innovation. Meanwhile, execs must be tech-savvy visionaries, steering their teams through digital transformations while keeping a human touch.

In this brave new world, no longer are traditional capabilities, like financial and operational skills sufficient. More than ever before, executives must have the ability to connect, inspire, and lead diverse teams through constant change. And to do this, they need exceptional people skills.

The 5 Most In-Demand Skills

So, what are the specific skills executives need to succeed in today’s work world?

To be clear, traditional capabilities remain highly relevant. The point is that traditional capabilities are no longer enough. To stand out, executives need highly developed social skills, too. Acquiring them will make them more attractive in a competitive job market, not to mention better remunerated because compensation for social skills is growing fast.

Our “C-Suite Skills” authors explain:

When we refer to “social skills,” we mean certain specific capabilities, including a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility for working with different types of people and groups, and what psychologists call “theory of mind”—the capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling. The magnitude of the shift in recent years toward these capabilities is most significant for CEOs but also pronounced for the four other C-suite roles we studied. Our analysis revealed that social skills are particularly important in settings where productivity hinges on effective communication.

This body of skills could reasonably be construed as “emotional intelligence,” which has certainly become a critical skill set in the modern workplace. Here are five more that crop up over and over on lists of in-demand executive skills compiled by LinkedIn, Indeed, Forbes, and others.

1.        Communication

The number one executive skill, across the board, is communication. Good communication is crucial in so many ways. It facilitates effective decision-making, fosters teamwork and collaboration, helps build relationships, inspires and motivates, helps maintain confidence during crises… The list is endless.

2.        Leadership

Leadership is a cornerstone of executive success because it integrates vision, strategy, people management, and organizational culture. Effective leadership creates a thriving, motivated workforce even as it ensures operational excellence.

3.        Teamwork

Executives who excel in teamwork can harness the diverse skills and perspectives of their team members. This collaborative approach often leads to innovative solutions and improved problem-solving, as different viewpoints are considered and integrated. It also fosters trust and camaraderie among employees, which can boost morale, job satisfaction, and retention.

4.        Interpersonal Skills

Executives who excel in interpersonal skills are better equipped to lead, inspire, and drive their organization forward. They are also adept at creating opportunities for their employers – and themselves. Cognizant of the importance of this competence, many universities offer courses on interpersonal skills in their MBA programs alongside more traditional instruction.

5.        Adaptability

The pandemic proved that adaptability in business is paramount. The rise of AI is hammering this point. LinkedIn now views adaptability as so important that it accords it special status in its list of The Most In-Demand Skills for 2024.

Dan Brodnitz, head of global content at LinkedIn Learning, had this to say about it:

The impact of generative AI has reshaped the world of work more quickly than even experts imagined. To study this phenomenon, we looked at “skills of the moment” — those that grew most quickly in a defined six-month period from 2022 to 2023. One skill rose to the top of the list: adaptability. 

Brodnitz believes that adaptability will become even more important because the pace of change will only increase. He adds:

Since 2015, skills for roles have, on average, changed by 25%; by 2030 it’s expected that number will reach at least 65%. Today, more than half of LinkedIn members hold jobs that stand to be disrupted or augmented by AI.

Given Brodnitz’s comments, shouldn’t “AI Skills” feature on this top 5 list? To be sure, people who understand how to use AI in their work will gain a competitive advantage. But strong people skills are what will truly set executives apart.

Written by Julie Norwell
Julie Norwell is senior writer & content manager at The Barrett Group.
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