Trend by Kevin Parker, Managing Director, Financial Services & Insurance Practices
While stellar credentials, blue chip experience and a valuable network will land a candidate in the competition for a C-suite spot, the criterion by which companies rate performance is rapidly changing. Increasingly, candidates are being judged on a number of elements that includes technical skills, but gives ever-more clout to leadership style and character. In a sea change, corporations are beginning to place a premium on a leader’s soft-skills – the ability to build loyal teams, attract and retain exceptional talent, and successfully engage people into action – across all levels of the organization.
Kevin Parker, Managing Director of the Financial and Insurance Practice of Cook Associates Executive Search spoke from his Chicago, Illinois office on the movement towards a revaluation of qualitative skills in executive leadership. Parker described an emerging trend in searches he embarks on now – regardless of the sector – where he finds clients requesting filtering, assessing, selecting, and even rejecting candidates based upon their soft-skills.
This is a noticeable break from client needs in years past when technical acumen ruled. Imperative in any search situation now is demonstrating that an executive has the ability to form lasting relationships and partnerships. Parker revealed, “As you get in front of the client you need to reflect back on what is important and more than ever those are the softer skills that the company is looking for.”
Recently Parker began a search for a major health insurance company seeking a vice president of sales. During weekly client meetings the conversation predominately focused on the potential candidates’ leadership skills. The client sought to know how the candidate would garner influence, how sophisticated were their relationship building skills, what specific examples of collaborative efforts were given, and how the candidate connects with people. Parker contrasts this with previous searches – where the conversation is usually about adherence to profit and loss statements, key performance measurement metrics, and ability to hit the numbers – and it is possible to argue a significant shift is occurring.
Dr. Daniel Crosby, a psychologist that specializes in performance consulting, agrees with Parker. He had this to say about the phenomenon, “More and more, organizations are recognizing that the idea of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills is a false dichotomy. Simply put, interpersonal skills have measurable bottom line impact, which is what has led to even the most traditional of organizations scrutinizing potential hires’ leadership skills along with technical ability.”
Take for example the recent candidate whom Parker spoke with for the aforementioned VP position in the health insurance industry. The executive was technically impeccable and possessed the necessary industry expertise. Yet, in the mind of the client, the candidate did not demonstrate enough high-quality leadership traits. In the end, the client could not move beyond what they deemed to be text book responses given by the candidate when asked about leadership and collaboration skills.
Another search Parker conducted – for an audit executive – had a similar outcome. The client expressed his need for someone who could provide technical skills. However, the client directed the search team to focus primarily on soft-skills needed to build relationships within the business, work across complex organizations, and demonstrate confidence as a leader. Interestingly, the client placed a premium on qualitative leadership skills and sought only baseline technical skills in a new executive.
What can be the cause of this shift? Crosby, who earned a Ph.D. from Brigham Young University, believes it may have taken root from the immorality displayed by institutions leading up to the recent financial crisis. Crosby declared, “The role that poor character and dishonesty played in precipitating the latest economic downturn has also awoken organizations to the catastrophic potential of hiring someone technically skilled and morally bankrupt.”
Parker says this shift can create a gap for executives accustomed to detailing technical capabilities. He counsels candidates beforehand saying, “Everyone that interviews with my clients, I give insights into the company culture. I let them know it will be important to reflect back into their career, and think through relevant examples of how they’ve exhibited leadership, even if these are examples of where they have failed. It is more important than ever and companies are looking for how candidates have personally developed these traits, beyond the technical acumen.”
It is no secret that the interview process is structured to elicit competition. How well a candidate performs in a small amount of time compared to others on set measures will make or break a career. In recent discussions on leadership with a general counsel of a top level investment management firm, the GC stated the number one trait that makes him successful is his team. In his highly technical and complex role, he attributes his success not only to knowing the details of the law, compliance, and regulatory based matters, but also to how well the groups he leads perform.
The general counsel expressed the importance of placing his teams' needs ahead of his own. He routinely works to make the team better and gives them the credit and visibility they deserve. When asked about defining leadership he offered this insight, “I see leadership as how you get people to go in a certain direction.” This is not to say that executives cannot be directive; indeed they must delegate assignments and make tough decisions, especially during times of crisis and uncertainty.
The GC concedes there are times when you will need to simply tell people – “this is what we are going to do.” To sum up his thoughts on executive-level leadership he said, “Leadership can mean a lot of different things. Really it’s about getting people to move in the direction you want them to move. There are many different ways you can do that and not one way that will always move people. Successful leaders don’t have one style they use all the time.”
For Parker, the insights shared on leadership by the GC provide an excellent example of an “A” player, illustrating how top leaders become successful – not only through their technical acumen – but by working with teams, elevating others, and coaching. Parker stated, “This GC is an example of what my clients are clamoring for when we are speaking with them about their needs in an executive.” Parker offered some parting guidance for those seeking to lead in the C-suite with soft-skills. He advises, “Clients are recognizing that leadership and soft-skills are as, or more, critical than functional expertise. Not only when hiring for the position at hand, but for leaders that can leverage their soft-skills to take on any role in the company, giving the client options and extending the leader's runway with the organization.”