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Requirements for The Modern Executive

By Jennifer Silvester

Most would agree the evolution of what it takes to be a successful executive has been rapidly changing and is far more complex today than ever before. The typical traits are still very relevant, things like results-oriented, strong people leader, and high financial acumen. However, as the world of work and commerce has continued to evolve, the cognitive and technical skills that are most prized are also changing.

If you are a sitting or aspiring executive, these six skills or traits are among the most sought-after by our clients, across all industries and functions:


Moving From Digital Awareness to Digital Fluency

Great leaders simply cannot delegate digital fluency and transformation. As the digital landscape has continued to evolve, so has the needs of a successful digital transformation leader. Digital is like its own language today that requires leaders to not just be literate, but fluent in speaking and understanding this aspect of their business. Today, digitalization is not simply about efficiency opportunities or managing remote workers effectively. It is the avenue for leaders to discover new opportunities, create new markets, change business models, secure their business and better serve their customers.

According to a study done by Harvard Business Review in 2017, 52% of leaders felt they had a strong Digital IQ. Yet last year, according to a study of about 2000 companies that was published in Sloan Management Review, only 7% were being led by digitally competent teams. The study went on to indicate only 25% of CEO’s were regarded as digitally proficient and even just 47% of CTO’s and 45% of CIO’s made the same cut. CEOs and Boards within the aerospace and defense sector reported Accenture’s Global Commercial Aerospace Insights Report that the digital fluency of their leadership teams is a critical priority and a top concern.

Building an agile, digitally fluent workforce and culture begins with the leadership team. Leadership teams must invest in their own learning and development when it comes to digital fluency. Accenture offers some advice on how to Hone Your Digital Edge. The professionals who can demonstrate this investment and the resulting digital transformation and innovation will continue to be in high-demand.


Leading & Thriving With A Multi-Generational Workforce

Much has already been written about why and how the business and workplace landscape has changed over the last two decades, particularly in the last few years. Key contributors include the challenge of having five generations in the workforce, all with vastly different attitudes and expectations of their leaders.

Multi-generational teams are here to stay and the most effective leaders will continue to innovate and find ways to harness the unique skills and capabilities of each. When we are working in a traditional industrial manufacturing environment, we often hear candidates who bemoan the challenges of working with younger generations. The opposite is true of our tech sector clients. It is refreshing to speak to leaders in any industry who have embraced the changing dynamic and approached it with curiosity and creativity.

For example, many companies have implemented reverse mentoring programs in their organization. These are not entirely new, when I worked for GE in the late 90’s the program was introduced with a focus on younger workers helping older workers understand technology, namely the internet. The modern version of reverse mentoring is much broader and has the potential to have an incredible impact if the participants are invested. Today, reverse mentoring can help executives think about strategic issues, how to lead and inspire a new generation, and of course help an executive improve their digital skills.

Other companies are building generational diversity into their DEI strategies and priorities. As so many DEI studies have shown, when you have a multidimensional team with various lived experiences, business always tends to do better.


Build Your Personal Brand & Reputation

In the era of digitization, high employee turnover, and labor market shortages, the personal branding of an organization and their C-Suite can now be translated into a competitive advantage. Consumers and employees (both potential and existing) often turn to social media to understand the leaders behind the company to help drive their decision making.

Added to this, the changing social and political environment has placed more pressure than ever on C-Suite leaders to weigh in on major social and community issues. Consider these findings from The Edelman Trust Barometer of 2023:

  • Businesses (and by default their leadership teams) are the most trusted institutions, driving greater expectations and responsibility.
  • Over 70% of employees expect their CEO’s to take a public stance on key societal issues such as climate change (82%), discrimination (80%), wealth gap (77%), and immigration (72%).
  • 68% of those polled believe business leaders have an opportunity to use the power of brands to create a shared identity, celebrating what brings us together and emphasizing our common interest could strengthen the social fabric.

As leaders carefully navigate creating their personal brand, consider it as a personal portfolio and collection of thoughts and ideas that reflect your values, leadership style, and decision making as a senior professional. Your focus should be on cultivating the positive reputation of yourself and your company, strengthening your credibility and in doing so building trust with your audience through authenticity.


Agility & Commitment to Driving Change

Executives and their teams are working in unprecedented and rapidly changing environments. The last three years has made this clear to most leaders who understand how critical their success depends on their ability to influence and innovate at speed. While we see leaders who embrace the need for agility in themselves and their teams, many are still struggling or even resisting the changes around them.

An easy example of this would be the shift toward more flexible work schedules and remote work. While remote work will never make sense in certain functions, almost all businesses have an opportunity to leverage remote work to improve their talent shortages. Leaders who continue to resist this purely because they are holding onto dated ideas or biases about the effectiveness of such strategy will find themselves continually struggling to compete for talent in key roles.

Executive leaders must first lean in to change themselves if they expect to have teams who will follow their lead and embrace the strategic necessity for people and businesses to adapt.


Strategic Thinking & Execution

Great strategists are incredibly curious people who enjoy observing and learning from the world around them. They invest time into deeply understanding their organizations, customers, and competitors to build the capacity to see the bigger picture.

Executive leaders in all functions must be able to proactively identify and solve complex problems, foresee opportunities for growth, and build bold, ambitious solutions others can get behind.

If you have received feedback that this is an area of growth opportunity for you, this HBR article suggests the 4 Ways to Improve Your Strategic Thinking Skills:

  1. Know: Observe & Seek Trends
  2. Think: Ask the Tough Questions
  3. Speak: Sound Strategic
  4. Act: Make Time for Thinking and Embrace Conflict

Unquestionable Integrity & Leading With Heart

Leadership has always called for executives to conduct themselves with the highest standards of ethics and integrity. Today, this is evolving to include promoting a culture that embraces transparency and accountability throughout their company. Employees want to not only believe in their company, they want to believe in and trust in their leaders. Before people will perform and sacrifice for you, they have to believe you have their best interests at heart.

Creating a powerful, high-performing, and accountability driven culture begins with an executive who holds themselves to the highest professional standards. These leaders also demonstrate high levels of emotional intelligence and lead their organizations through trust, not fear. They take time to listen,

In conclusion, the requirements of a successful executive today demand a much broader range of technical, cognitive, and emotional skill-set. Current and aspiring executives should spend dedicated time nurturing and developing their skills as the market continues to rapidly evolve and change. Being a lifelong learner and always curious is essential to your success, whether you’ve been working for 30+ years or are brand new to the workforce.