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What Companies Want Most in a CEO: A Good Listener

If you are a CEO or an aspiring CEO, you should be focusing on being a good listener, according to new research.

Written by: Jay Fitzgerald (Are you the author?)

For a better shot at landing the top job at today’s companies, aspiring CEOs should set aside their slide presentations and work on their listening skills instead, new research suggests.

Companies are increasingly seeking socially adept leaders—not charismatic smooth-talkers, but executives who listen empathetically, welcome input, and rally the workforce around a common goal, according to a recent study by a team of researchers including Harvard Business School Professors Raffaella Sadun and Joseph Fuller, who analyzed thousands of executive job search descriptions created over a 17-year period.

“The demand for social skills is increasing in every category of the economy,” says Sadun, the Charles Edward Wilson Professor of Business Administration in the Strategy Unit at HBS. “[But] it’s not about schmoozing.”

Instead, headhunters and corporate recruiters want candidates with soft skills who can:

  • actively listen to others;
  • empathize genuinely with others’ experiences;
  • persuade people to work toward a common goal;
  • and communicate clearly—or, as Sadun puts it, “touch the chords of listeners.”

Top executives who demonstrate this kind of interpersonal prowess are more likely to be in high demand, particularly at large, multinational, and information-intensive organizations, the research suggests. Those companies see social skills in the C-suite as more important than more traditional operational and administrative abilities, such as monitoring the allocation of financial resources.

That’s because today’s senior executives face a more complex, technology-driven work world in which they must coordinate diverse teams across the globe to achieve goals and solve problems, the researchers note in their recent working paper, The Demand for Executive Skills.

“The demand for social skills in executive searches reflects specific firm needs, in particular the need to coordinate more—and more complex—activities within firms,” the paper says.

Managers at all levels need social skills

Sadun and Fuller, along with co-authors Stephen Hansen of the Imperial College Business School in London, and Tejas Ramdas of Cornell University, analyzed 4,622 searches for top executives conducted by 3,794 executive-search firms between 2000 and 2017. About 43 percent of the searches were for CEOs, 36 percent were for CFOs, and the rest were for other top management positions.

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