What companies look for most in a CEO: a good listener


For a better chance of getting the best job in today’s companies, aspiring CEOs should instead put aside their slide presentations and work on their listening skills, new research suggests.

Companies are increasingly looking for socially adept leaders – not charismatic talkers, but executives who empathetically listen, welcome feedback and rally the workforce around a common goal, according to a recent study conducted by a company. team of researchers including Harvard Business School professors Raffaella Sadun and Joseph Fuller, who analyzed thousands of executive job search descriptions created over a 17-year period.

“The demand for social skills is increasing in all categories of the economy,” says Sadun, Charles Edward Wilson professor of business administration in HBS’s strategy unit. “[But] it is not about chatting.

Instead, headhunters and corporate recruiters look for candidates with soft skills who can:

  • actively listen to others;
  • sincerely sympathize with the experiences of others;
  • persuade people to work towards a common goal;
  • and communicate clearly or, as Sadun says, “touch the ropes of the listeners”.

Senior executives who exhibit this kind of interpersonal prowess are more likely to be in high demand, especially in large, multinational and information-intensive organizations, the research suggests. These companies see social skills in the C suite as more important than more traditional operational and administrative capacities, such as controlling the allocation of financial resources.

That’s because today’s senior executives face a more complex, technology-driven world of work in which they must coordinate various teams across the globe to achieve goals and solve problems, the researchers note. in their recent working document, The demand for leadership skills.

“The demand for social skills in executive searches reflects the specific needs of companies, in particular the need to coordinate more and more complex activities within companies,” the document said.

Managers at all levels need social skills

Sadun and Fuller, along with co-authors Stephen Hansen of Imperial College Business School in London and Tejas Ramdas of Cornell University, analyzed 4,622 senior executive searches conducted by 3,794 executive search firms between 2000 and 2017. About 43% of searches were for CEOs, 36% for CFOs and the remainder for other senior positions.

The researchers looked at research conducted primarily on behalf of companies with 1,500 to 55,000 employees in a variety of industries, including manufacturing, finance, insurance, real estate, retail, and technology. information. American companies accounted for 57% of searches and European companies 29%.

The researchers used machine learning algorithms to map the text of job descriptions into six distinct skill groups: administration, financial and material resource management, human resource management, information skills, performance monitoring, and social skills. The team defined “social skills” as “interacting with, listening to, persuading and empathizing with others” and “being aware of the reactions of others and understanding why they react the way they do”. Demand for these skills has been increasing for decades in all areas of management, but they are more valued among CEO candidates, the authors found.

While companies still require senior executive candidates to have “real world” skills, such as financial expertise, administrative and operational experience, and technical knowledge, the demand for these skills has remained static or declined in recent years. In contrast, the demand for social skills has increased significantly, according to the study’s findings.

Complex work requires new skills

The authors found that the demand for social skills depended on firm size, geographic diversification of the workforce, and a firm’s involvement in mergers and acquisitions.

  • Large companies were more likely to include social skills in their job search requirements.
  • Being a multinational company was associated with a 4.7 percentage point increase in the likelihood of including references to social skills in the job description.
  • Firms involved in mergers and acquisitions were 3 percentage points more likely to seek social skills.

The study models also found that companies requiring large numbers of employees with IT skills were associated with a 5.2-6.3% increase in demand within the social skills cluster.

“This has to do with the increasing complexity associated with running larger, more knowledge-intensive organizations,” says Sadun.

Previous generations of CEOs may have brought in a smaller group of advisers or made unilateral decisions, but today’s leaders need to garner more feedback and buy-in from a wider and larger range. diverse range of experts to achieve business goals and solve increasingly difficult problems, researchers say. . Vast changes in the nature of work done on a global scale require different management capacities, especially at the top of organizations.

Can social skills be taught?

Previous studies have explored the importance of interpersonal skills in the wider labor market. But the authors say their study is one of the first to highlight the importance of these abilities for leadership positions. The growing emphasis on social skills emerging from job descriptions suggests that seemingly basic social skills are seen as playing a key role for the success of complex and information-intensive organizations.

However, it is not certain that the supply of social skills in the managerial labor market has been able to meet this growing demand. Do enough senior executives currently have these skills to meet business demand? And if not, can aspiring CEOs receive training to improve their social skills?

Some of the early work in this area, including an experiment conducted by other HBS faculty on entrepreneurs, suggests that this may well be the case, but the evidence on senior executives and in high-income countries is still scarce. More research is needed to find out whether key social skills can be learned, whether they are inherently unique to some people, or whether they are a combination of the two, Sadun says.

About the Author

Jay fitzgerald is a writer based in the Boston area.
[Image: Shutterstock/MicroStockHub]

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