Jun 16, 2022 - Economy

CEO recruiters increasingly prize soft skills

Skills emphasized in CEO job listings
Data: Russell Reynolds Associates; Chart: Axios Visuals

Turns out some of us might have what it takes to run a giant public company: social skills. CEOs with such skills are increasingly in demand, finds a new analysis just published in the Harvard Business Review.

Why it matters: People skills have grown in importance as CEOs are increasingly expected to respond to not just shareholders and board members, but employees, customers, the public at large, regulators, activists, and more. The upheaval of the pandemic has made it even more crucial that leaders are good, empathetic communicators.

  • The most wanted soft skills include a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate and "the capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling," write the authors.

Details: The researchers began this project three years ago, analyzing nearly 5,000 job descriptions between 200o and 2017 provided by executive recruitment firm Russell Reynolds. The help wanteds were for CEOs, as well as the other big C's — the chiefs of finance, information, human resources and marketing.

  • There was a 27% increase in C-suite job listings emphasizing social skills in the time period the authors examined; while listings that emphasized hard skills declined 38%.

The big picture: Though more recent data wasn't yet available, it's safe to say these skills are only in more demand now, says Raffaella Sadun, a professor at Harvard Business School who co-authored the paper.

  • At a time of labor shortages and high quit rates, leaders need to be adept at communicating. "This is a good time to have a CEO with soft skills," she says.

Zoom out: The old archetype of the ideal CEO was Jack Welch, she said. The former GE leader was very top-down, motivating people through money and fear, as I wrote last month.

  • Workers today are less apt to be straight-up bossed around. "Telling people who have deep expertise what to do, without persuading them or convincing them, is not that feasible."
  • Organizations today are also more complex and require more coordination and communications between disparate teams.

Worth noting: Social skills are increasingly in demand for workers at all levels.

  • Jobs requiring these skills grew at a faster rate than the labor market as a whole, according to a paper from economist David Deming, published in 2017.

What to watch: While these skills are in high demand, companies haven't quite figured out how to screen candidates for empathy and self-awareness. "The recruitment process has not caught up," says Sadun.

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