For CEOs, It’s an Era of High Expectations About Soft Skills

COVID-19 has put a spotlight on the importance of empathy in the C-suite. Now, stakeholders and hiring committees are prompting CEOs to do more than pay it lip service.

Soft skills have always been important for leaders. We want executives who demonstrate empathy, emotional intelligence, and a capacity to understand a variety of viewpoints. But they may be even more important these days.

Consider some findings from a survey of more than 300 C-suite executives in the United States, United Kingdom, and Singapore conducted in January by the marketing firm WE Communications. The survey found that 89 percent of leaders “believe purpose is becoming as important as financial results”; the same percentage say that engaging with issues affecting employees is a “moral obligation.” Sizable majorities say it’s now more important for them to state their personal values (71 percent) and that it will be critical to learn from their employees and stakeholders in the coming year (69 percent).

As the report on the survey [PDF] puts it: “We have traditionally celebrated leaders for their boldness and confidence, for pursuing their vision with relentless focus, and for never showing doubt or uncertainty. But this façade is cracking under the strain of COVID-19, and the economic and social upheaval that we have all been living through.”

Customers now expect their leaders to be out front on social issues.

It’s fine to be a bit skeptical about these numbers, which have a whiff of response bias about them. After all, few execs are ever inclined to say they don’t want to engage with their employees or learn from them.

But the difference at the moment is that that executives are more often expected to demonstrate that kind if vulnerability. Last week, Forbes reported on a Forrester survey that found more people expecting CEOs to be more outspoken on political issues. Nearly half of the respondents (47 percent) said they associate the CEO’s political views with “those of the businesses they lead,” and 43 percent said they trust brands that take a stance on “social, environmental, and political issues.”

Where executives were once at best expected to be reactive to hot-button trends, now they’re expected to be out front. “Ten or 15 years ago, people were sorting out the extent of permission,” Edelman CEO Richard Edelman told Forbes. “Now I think it’s expectation. I think the consumer expects you, not permits you.”

And it’s likely just as true for an association leader that staff, membership, and stakeholders have similar expectations. For those leading trade associations with strong advocacy initiatives, it’s practically a reflex—those leaders are used to being outspoken about legislative issues that impact their industry. But that’s not quite the same thing as being open to dialogue about the organization’s values. As the WE Communications report says: “Today’s business leaders are recognizing that it’s not enough just to listen to their employees’ concerns. They must learn how to internalize what they are hearing so they can anticipate how their actions and decisions might impact employees in negative ways.”

Leaders who fail to do that are subject to a lot of scrutiny these days—the Hollywood and Broadway producer Scott Rudin is the latest and most prominent example. Now, CEO candidates can be expected to talk as much about their ethics and values as their talents at fiscal management. (In a recent Bloomberg Opinion op-ed, economist Dambisa Moyo proposed that among the questions boards should ask potential CEOs is “What’s the worst thing you have ever done to another human being?”)

None of this ought to discount the traditional leadership and management skills an executive has. But the expectation that a CEO will possess a fuller range of abilities, starting with the ability to hear out other viewpoints, is stronger than ever.

(frankpeters/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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