Seven skills needed to succeed in the C-suite

Technical skills are a given, but true leadership is unique

Editor's note: This story was updated on November 6, 2017.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Boris Groysberg asks executive placement experts to identify the skills that leaders need to thrive in today's work environment—and how those skills will change in the coming decade.

Groysberg—a professor at the Harvard Business School—surveyed several dozen top consultants at a leading global executive placement firm in 2010. The consultants identified the seven following skills as the most highly-valued for C-suite candidates:

  1. Leadership. The most indispensable C-suite skills are those that jointly constitute leadership, with the specific type—inspirational, non-authoritarian, or take-charge leadership—depending on the company's specific needs.
  2. Strategic thinking and execution. The ability to set the "strategic direction" for a company was frequently mentioned as a highly-prized skill among executives, as well as the ability to effectively execute a strategic vision.
  3. Technical and technology skills. The third most-valued trait for C-level executives was a deep understanding of law, financials, or technology, with many consultants stressing the growing importance of having technology skills and technical literacy.
  4. Team- and relationship-building. C-suite executives can no longer succeed as a "brilliant one-person player," one consultant asserted. Rather, today's leaders must be skilled in building and managing highly effective teams.
  5. Communication and presentation. The consultants agreed that the ideal C-suite executive possesses the "power of persuasion" and "excellent presentation skills," both of which are necessary when speaking to internal audiences and external stakeholders.
  6. Change-management. The ability to lead an organization through transformational change is another skill that is growing in demand. One consultant noted that this is less about "drastic firm-wide change than with being at easy with constant flux."
  7. Integrity. Though it is not necessarily a "skill" per se, the survey found that executives with integrity and reputation are highly valued in the workplace. Employers are looking for "unquestioned ethics" given the speed of today's communication, one consultant said.

The top seven traits mentioned are not static, but are in constant flux. Over the last decade, a striking theme has been the "demise of the star culture," the consultants told Groysberg. Being a team player and working well with others matters much more than it used to, as does the mastery of change-management skills.

By contrast, many consultants told Groysberg that technical skills—the old gold standard for executive searches—while still important, have grown to be simply a baseline requirement for today's leaders. As one consultant put it, "Whereas technical expertise was previously paramount, these competencies [being sought today] are more about leadership skills than technical ones" (Groysberg, HBR, 3/18).

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