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Ambitious? Learn What Companies Actually Desire in a CEO
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Ambitious? Learn What Companies Actually Desire in a CEO

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These skills can help anyone looking to advance in an organization

Have you ever seen a “Wanted — New CEO: $750,000/yr” job ad? No. They’re not a thing. Corporate searches for chief executives are discreetly handled by headhunting firms in a hush-hush process that has created a longstanding headache for scholars. Until recently, it was nearly impossible for them to know what skills are in demand for CEOs.

Chief executives themselves have been analyzed for three decades, with researchers cataloging their personality traits and work habits. But researchers understood little about what firms actually want in executives. Charisma? Strategic brilliance? Inspiration? “It’s all private data, because headhunting firms run these operations,” says co-author Stephen Hansen, an associate professor of economics at Imperial College Business School in London. “The logistical challenge was how to get ahold of this data in the first place.”

He persevered and eventually acquired job specifications from 4,622 C-suite executive searches at 3,794 companies through one top-five headhunting firm. With two colleagues, he algorithmically mapped the descriptions of each role. The descriptions of ideal candidates said things like:

Sincerely interested in people, and respect and value the opinions of others

Values listening, treating people fairly and cares about individuals and their progress

Inspires others and understands what motivates different people

Willing to listen to various opinions on issues

Yes, empathy is in for CEOs. Companies want leaders who listen and collaborate and, well, care about feelings. Really. This was not what the researchers expected to find. “The biggest surprise for me was the fact that ‘hard’ skills, like operational and administrative skills, appear to be losing out in comparison to social skills,” says co-author Raffaella Sadun, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “Soft skills are especially in demand in tech-intensive firms, which suggests that very human skills may serve as a complement to technology.”

How can you even ascertain whether your listening and empathy skills are up to snuff? Here are useful tips on how to get snagged as the next great CEO.

Focus on soft skills. Prioritize active listening (giving full attention to what others say and taking time to understand the points being made), social perceptiveness (awareness of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do), conflict resolution (bringing others together to reconcile differences) and coordination (adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions). You need to emphasize them, because typical business programs teach “hard” skills like balance sheet analysis and market condition evaluation.

Practice listening and empathy. “These are skills that can be in part formed,” says Sadun, even at business school. “Business training can play a role. For example, when MBA students take part in a case discussion, they also develop the ability to listen and persuade others, which is an aspect of social skills,” she says.

Become a persuasion ninja. It’s a key ability, consistently sought by executive hirers. CEO job ads say things like, You have effectively influenced the thoughts and actions of others, winning concessions without damaging relationships. Another says, Is accustomed to negotiating with an ability to create win-win situations by listening and understanding others’ motives and views. The common thread here is gentle persuasion.

Be a generalist. The study found that most C-suite job descriptions prioritize specialized skills. For example, companies hiring a CFO prize administrative and resource management skills, and companies hiring CIOs want top-notch information skills, unsurprisingly. But CEOs are expected to be generalists, with more well-rounded profiles. “It might be beneficial to have had a bigger variety of experiences across industries, rather than working up from the bottom to top rung,” Hansen says.

Re-evaluate your actual abilities. “A lot of people who’ve come through the education system use their formal qualifications as the yardstick of their competence,” Hansen says. Think class rankings, prestigious internships and sales numbers. “These metrics are a very incomplete picture of what would get you to the top of an organization. So think about your well-roundedness not just in terms of formal qualifications and academic success, but your ability to form links with people, build teams and get your way in an organization without shouting at people.” These traits might not appear on your CV — but they’ll propel you where you want to go, to the top seat.

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