The most sought-after skills in the C-suite

Do you have what it takes to land at the next level? Find out what’s on executive-level recruiters’ wish lists.

The most sought-after skills in the C-suite

The C-suite: It’s not really a job. It’s an achievement. These positions are at the top of the ladder: CEO, CIO, CFO, COO, etc. When you get there, you know you’ve arrived in your career.

But what does it take to get a position at the head of the food chain? It’s about more than just hard work and experience. According to one survey by executive search firm Korn Ferry, 87% of executives would like to become CEO, but only 15% have the characteristics that would make them successful in that spot.

There are a variety of attributes that recruiters name as being important in a C-level candidate. Some of them are intangible, and, depending upon at what level in your career you are, may be difficult to develop. But there are some you can improve. “If you have a high emotional intelligence quotient and you’re a self-motivated person who wants to succeed, you may be able to move the needle from a four to a six,” says Ron Torch, president and CEO of the Torch Group, an executive search firm.

As for skills that require more experience, you’re not sunk if your job isn’t providing it. “Executives who don’t have the opportunity to develop these skills in a private corporate venue can select local non-profits to donate their time and experience, to gain the skill sets to add to their resumes,” says Dawn Boyer, a resume writer and career consultant with Boyer Consulting.

As you’re evaluating your chances of moving to the head of the business class, measure yourself against the following checklist:

Leadership

Specifically, recruiters are looking to see if you have people who will follow you. “That’s the only proof of leadership that we find valid,” says Mario Alosco, a partner with executive recruiting firm Radius Partners.

“There are a lot of successful CEOs, that if you look back at the companies they managed, the people say, ‘We made money, but I’d never work for that person again,’” Alosco says. “It’s the people that will follow them.

Boost leadership experience off the job by serving on an executive board, offering to start a local chapter of a national organization or launching a non-profit. “Other options are to ask your current business manager for ‘leadership development opportunities’ such as to lead a task force to improve customer relationships,” says Laura Handrick, an HR analyst for FitSmallBusiness.com. “Or tackle a pressing work problem like warehouse shrinkage.”

Empathy

To be an effective CEO, there must be some level of awareness—and connection to—what’s going on around you.

“It’s not just talking about people’s feelings,” Alosco says. “It’s having the wisdom to understand the strengths and weaknesses of people and how to play off them, to understand what motivates someone.”

Empathy is what will help you be a visionary and a better leader. You can hone this skill by focusing on others’ perspectives and practicing being an active listener—but much of empathy is innate. Some people refer to these skills as emotional intelligence.

Change management

This is the ability to recognize an organization’s, opportunities and drive the changes that are necessary to produce better results.

“Recruiters are looking to see that an executive has change management skills to lead an organization through massive change, restructuring or innovation,” Handrick says.

That’s because a company rarely brings in a new CEO to maintain the status quo. “Even if the CEO has been very successful and they retire, and a new CEO comes in, they’re coming in to make changes and do things their way,” Torch says. “So, the skills and ability to see those opportunities and drive those changes are critical.”

Communication

This is important at all levels, but it’s especially critical at the top.

“You must have the ability to talk to people at all levels, to be clear, to be transparent, to be approachable,” Torch says. “You must be persuasive and communicate so that everyone in the organization knows and buys into the goals, the vision and the mission. It’s a leadership role.”

Self-awareness

Being a C-level executive isn’t about being perfect. If anything, it’s about recognizing that you aren’t. “It’s the willingness to be vulnerable, to admit your mistakes,” Torch says. “To show others that you are constantly improving whatever capabilities that you have.”

When you’re self-aware, you see some of your blind spots—the places where you’re weakest. “Blind spots are what get in the way of people succeeding and, in turn, having the organization succeed behind them,” Torch says.

Top executives need to have excellent people development skills, Handrick says, “and that only comes through self-awareness and a willingness to learn and grow.”