What It Takes To Become A Future C-Level Leader

What It Takes To Become A Future C-Level Leader

September 2016


Cappelli and Hamori conducted research to understand the changing characteristics of executives from 1980 to 2001. In just roughly 20 years, a lot had changed in terms of what it took to get to the top of an organization. With the increased pace of innovation, the degree of technological change, and old rules being broken, the requirements for future C-level leaders are bound to change even more. Consider the following quote:

“In today’s more competitive environment, Ivy League connections are less important, top executives are more likely to come from outside a company, job tenure is much lower, and executives get to the top faster by holding fewer jobs.” (Cappelii and Hamori, NBER Working Paper No. 10507)

To better understand the behaviors, characteristics, and skills of future C-Level leaders, I interviewed Dr. Kristin Behfar, Associate Professor of Leadership and Organizations at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, who has conducted extensive research on how to lead teams and global strategic change effectively. In full disclosure, I work with Behfar; I find her research on conflict management and team leadership extremely helpful in providing unique insight into the traits, behaviors, and characteristics required of future C-Level leaders. What follows are her thoughts.

Key Requirements of Future C-Level Leaders

1. Knowledge: A big change impacting C-level leaders is the globalization phenomenon. On top of functional knowledge, industry knowledge, and company knowledge, C-level leaders must be proficient in navigating global challenges. As companies become more and more global, the complexity associated with being able to navigate legal, political, economic, social, and human resource systems in other countries will become more challenging. Layer on the nuanced understanding required of gaining insight into culture-specific behaviors (e.g., deal-making) and the ability with which leaders will need to adapt will increase. All of this means that the type, amount, and diversity of knowledge that C-level leaders must have is different and more complex than in past decades.

2. Performance Measurement: C-suite leaders will have to continue focusing on and measuring output results (what gets done) in addition to being flexible on inputs (where and when it gets done). With technology, work is rarely a “9 to 5” operation. CEOs return email at 11PM on Saturday, they fly out to catch a meeting on Sunday, and then Skype with an employee overseas at 5AM. However, they also might go watch their grandchild play soccer at 4PM on Friday. The “always on” mentality that comes with constant connection means that leaders will view when and how work gets done differently – and tolerate that from their employees. With constant connection requires flexibility and tolerance of different work habits. This means a focus on measuring results and redefining inputs.

3. People Management and Skill Improvement: Who the C-suite leads today is drastically different than even 15 years ago. In addition, employee expectations of employers has changed. Leading individuals in a workforce to experience one another in a positive way is one of the more challenging sides of leadership. Building skill in aligning diverse values, identities, and work styles is complex and challenging. However, our ability to understand employee behavior (through research) is greater, as is understanding of career progression and derailment. A recommended book on the topic is: The End of Diversity as we Know It: Why Diversity Efforts Fail and Why Leveraging Difference Can Succeed by Martin Davidson. Importantly, C-level leaders must find the time to learn, grow, and re-tool regularly to ensure they are both competent and effective leaders.

4. EQ Capability: Behfar mentioned that tomorrow’s leaders will be even more adept at modeling how to react to conflict. A simple rule is to “separate content from delivery”. With globalization comes a variety of individual styles. Some individuals are quite emotional while others are stoic. A critical skill that effective leaders will increasingly need to have is the ability to eliminate the “noise” related to how somebody is talking to focus on the content of what they are saying. Being able to ignore the style with which a complaint, suggestion, or idea is communicated to focus on the central issue enables leaders to be more effective problem solvers. This is not an easy skill to develop as many individuals react to “style” which can derail a discussion. Tomorrow’s C-level leaders will be very effective at recognizing how to turn conflict into important opportunities for the business and for modeling effective leadership in those they intend to develop.

As effective leadership continues to be a premium among tomorrow’s leaders, developing the skills, knowledge, management, and capability required will be more challenging. Between books, conferences, consultants, and executive education, it’s possible to turn this challenge into a competitive advantage.


This article was written by Kimberly A. Whitler from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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