The role of a CEO, once defined by strategy charts and bottom lines, is undergoing a sea change. With constant technological advances, changing business complexities, and societal expectations, CEOs are required to expand their expertise beyond traditional business acumen. Today, a truly great CEO needs to master the art of social skills, demonstrating a keen ability to interact, coordinate, and communicate across multiple dimensions.
As the business landscape continues to grow more complex, the ability to navigate this intricacy has become a defining factor in effective leadership. This holds true for large, publicly-listed multinational corporations and medium to large companies operating in a rapidly evolving marketplace. As a result, leaders must possess the skills and acumen to navigate this complex landscape, make informed decisions, and steer their organisations toward success.
Top executives in these firms are expected to harness their social skills to coordinate diverse and specialised knowledge, solve organisational problems, and facilitate effective internal communication. Further, the interconnected web of critical relationships with external constituencies demands leaders to demonstrate adept communication skills and empathy.
The proliferation of information-processing technologies has also played a crucial role in defining a CEO’s success. As businesses increasingly automate routine tasks, leadership must offer a human touch—judgment, creativity, and perception—that can’t be replicated by technology. In technologically-intensive firms, CEOs need to align a heterogeneous workforce, manage unexpected events, and negotiate decision-making conflicts—tasks best accomplished with robust social skills.
Equally, with most companies relying on similar technological platforms, CEOs need to distinguish themselves through superior management of the people who utilise these tools. As tasks are delegated to technology, leaders with superior social skills will find themselves in high demand, commanding a premium in the labour market.
The rise of social media and networking technologies has also transformed the role of CEOs. Moving away from the era of anonymity, CEOs are now expected to be public figures interacting transparently and personally with an increasingly broad range of stakeholders. With real-time platforms capturing and publicising every action, CEOs need to be adept at spontaneous communication and anticipate the ripple effects of their decisions.
Diversity & inclusion
In the contemporary world, great CEOs also need to navigate issues of diversity and inclusion. This calls for a theory of mind—a keen understanding of the mental states of others—enabling CEOs to resonate with diverse employee groups, represent their interests effectively, and create an environment where diverse talent can thrive. (See our article on the Chief Coaching Officer for an alternative solution to this issue)
Given this backdrop, it is essential for organisations to refocus their hiring and leadership development strategies. Instead of relying on traditional methods of leadership cultivation, companies need to build and evaluate social skills among potential leaders systematically.
Current practices, such as rotating through various departments, geographical postings, or executive development programs, aren’t enough. Firms need to design a comprehensive approach to building social skills, even prioritising them over technical skills. High-potential leaders should be placed in roles that require extensive interaction with varied employee populations and external constituencies, and their performance should be closely monitored.
Assessing social skills calls for innovative methods beyond the traditional criteria of work history, technical qualifications, and career trajectory. New tools are needed to provide an objective basis for evaluating and comparing people’s abilities in this domain. While some progress is being made with the use of AI and custom tools for lower-level job seekers, there is a need for further innovation in top-level searches.
In conclusion, the role of the CEO is more multifaceted than ever. The modern world demands executives to possess exceptional social skills, including effective communication, empathetic interaction, and proactive inclusion. Companies need to recognise this change and adapt their leadership development programs accordingly to cultivate CEOs who can effectively lead in the 21st century.