Keep Learning Once You Hit the C-Suite

Harvard Business Review

What skills do companies prize in C-level executives ? To answer these questions, we surveyed 32 senior search consultants at a top global executive-placement firm. Experienced search consultants typically interview hundreds and even thousands of senior executives; they assess those executives’ skills, track them over time, and in some cases place the same executive in a series of jobs. They also observe how executives negotiate, what matters most to them in hiring contracts, and how they decide whether to change companies. (See my posts on “The Seven Skills You Need to Thrive in the C-Suite” and “Headhunters Reveal What Candidates Want”)

Many consultants emphasized that executives need a first-rate core of technical and soft skills. These skills will vary by industry and function, but up-to-date financial, technical, managerial, and leadership skills are of universal value. The terms “flexible,” “adaptable,” and “curious” came up frequently. One consultant described a typical in-demand executive as “a sponge,” primed to “take in new skills” and “learn from the people around them.” Another endorsed “willingness to learn and adapt to changing environments,” and a third urged “adaptability, the ability to operate in multi-cultural environments and the openness to learn.” One consultant virtually spelled out a formal specification: “Executives should not only have a high level of intellectual curiosity (staying current on market trends and changing dynamics in business), but also a personal sense of flexibility and adaptability.” Several consultants urged executives to build on their personal strengths, or, in the words of one respondent, to “stay very focused and honest on where their core strengths lie.”

Several consultants urged executives to refresh their technical skills constantly. “It is always important to keep oneself up to date with what is happening in the industry,” one said. “Updating one’s IT skills and getting acquainted with the new ways of communicating and interacting (social media) are obviously also very important.” Another urged executives to “continue to educate themselves commercially, financially, and operationally.”

Some argued that merely keeping pace with industry and market changes is inadequate; an executive must anticipate change. The costs of not doing so—not continuously changing and evolving—are likely to be high. Those who neglect to keep up, one respondent said, “will be left behind in a rapidly changing market.”

Finally, team-building skills are both highly prized and shifting rapidly: executives are apt to find themselves managing co-located teams, cross-functional teams, global teams, and virtual teams. Accordingly, they are increasingly expected to apply an analytical lens to team management and to be familiar with best practices (as opposed to managing by gut).

Where should executives turn for advice on skills they need to acquire and upgrade? According to the search consultants, executives might also want to seek out these four sources of insight:

Self–assessment. Many consultants stressed astringent self-reflection, urging honest self-scrutiny about one’s shortcomings and developmental needs before turning to peers, colleagues, mentors, coaches, or courses. “Be extremely critical of yourself,” one counseled. Another urged “listening, adapting, and being cognizant about your own strengths and weaknesses.” The risks of complacency and arrogance arose repeatedly. As antidotes, some recommended flexibility, openness, and willingness to listen. “[Leaders] need to be constantly testing how people are responding to them,” one consultant said, “and open to adjusting their style—both in how they communicate with different groups of people and how they change their leadership approach to suit the situation.”

Peer and subordinate feedback. “External awareness”— which one consultant described as “the ability to seek information outside the executive’s classic sphere”—was viewed as just as important as self-awareness. Several respondents advocated a “strong and diverse network” and openness to 360-degree feedback—that is, not just feedback from supervisors. One even declared that executives “should always be asking their team, peers, and boss how they can be better.”

The same relationships that can fortify executives’ self-knowledge can also keep them abreast of the market and the industry. One consultant urged executives to “seek advice at all levels, and leverage the experts they have in their businesses—this helps build trusted relationships as well as provide them with valuable information.” Another noted one hazard of failing to do so: “Too often I see good executives focused only on their role, and not interested in spending time building a good network of peers. The consequence is that they miss the weak signals of the market.”

Mentoring. Many respondents recommended a mentor—one whose career trajectory the executive hopes to emulate—as a source of information and advice. “Analyze the success of others in their company,” one consultant suggested, “and don’t be afraid to seek out a mentor.” Others extolled the benefits of taking a more junior colleague as a mentor, or “reverse mentoring.” “In a few cases we have been successful in implementing a ‘reverse’ mentoring program, i.e., giving an under-30-year-old mentor to an executive of 54 years of age or older,” one consultant said. “They have been helpful in changing some old habits and ways of thinking.” The junior partners tend to be front-line managers and professionals with up-to-the-minute knowledge of customers, competitors, products, technologies, and trends.

Formal education and developmental assignments. Some consultants praised external educational offerings, including formal executive-education courses, for the access they offer to new research and practices, examples of companies facing relevant challenges, and sometimes a global network of contacts.

Others advocated seeking out varied and off-track job assignments, or what one consultant called “opportunities that take one out of one’s comfort zone.” Developmental assignments outside one’s areas of expertise can often provide exposure to new practices, new markets, and disruptive technologies.

Professional coaches were also cited as a source of reliable but confidential feedback about oneself and one’s managerial skills. “Having a coach or peer group to bounce ideas off is important as execs review their own performance critically,” said one consultant. “An impartial outsider is often required.” Coaches can help executives correct their blind spots and weaknesses, and offer valuable negative feedback that subordinates might withhold.

As one executive offered advice for the long haul: “Do not spread yourself too thinly, and focus on the objectives you have been given. Ensure you have a happy and healthy support system outside of work, and make this a priority.” Some cautioned, too, that flexibility ought not to displace long-term objectives. The goal, one consultant said, is to “stay open-minded but remain on purpose.” Another warned against embracing fads and “every whimsical management book that comes to the market.” Another observed, “The problem is not the sources of information. It is about the analytical and reflective capacity to sort through all that information and pick what is specific to their needs.”

Today, the most pressing question is,“How can you keep your skills current?” It’s really a question of career survival.

About the Research

We talked to the 32 consultants in 2010, but the findings are consistent with everything we hear today. As a group, the senior search consultants we spoke to were 57% male and 43% female. They represented a wide range of industries, including industrial (28%), financial (19%), consumer (13%), technology (11%), corporate (6%), functional practice (6%), education/social enterprise (4%), and life sciences (4%). These senior search consultants worked in 19 different countries from every region of the world, including North American (34%), Europe (28%), Asia/India (26%), Australia/New Zealand (6%), Africa (4%) and South America (2%).

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