Executive leadership is changing – but has anyone noticed?

By Robert Half on 20/07/2023
Estimated Read Time: 3 minutes

ESG, diversity and multiple crises are redrawing the skills of c-suite leadership. Veronique Elskens and Charlie Grubb, Managing Directors at Robert Half’s Executive Search practices, explore what’s happening – and why some boardrooms are being slow to catch on.

The blend of executive leadership skills is changing. But the evidence suggests that many c-suite leaders and investors are failing to acknowledge the shift. According to Robert Half’s Boardroom Navigator 2023, leadership experience, strategic thinking and project management are being prioritised above ESG and diversity, agility and creativity, and even emotional intelligence.

While modern leadership calls for experience, a clear head and organisation, it requires other skills, too. In 2024, the EU Taxonomy, which aims to provide clarity on environmentally sustainable activities, will be expanded; legislation to protect against human rights abuses in supply chains is also being phased in. ESG is set to dominate boardroom thinking – and will define executive careers – in the next decade.

Businesses also face a shortage of skills. To attract people, especially the younger generations, clear evidence of DEI is pivotal. Promoting women – and people from ethnic minorities – into leadership roles will boost the number of potential candidates; a policy on neurodiversity, alongside a diversity of interests and backgrounds, will help. This also means, however, that Leaders need to develop an understanding of managing a multigenerational workforce, with sometimes even five generations in the workplace, and the importance of creating interaction between these groups and helping them to share the experiences across projects and identify leaders within their teams who can do manage this collaboration effectively are key.

Executive leadership teams which understand people’s backgrounds, interests, and experiences – and combine them with other characteristics – will deliver change, develop creative thinking, and improve their decision making. People will want to work with them, customers will support them, and the market will respond positively.

And they will be better equipped for a future punctuated by change: from environmental and social concerns to generational shifts in the workforce, artificial intelligence will also combine with geo-political uncertainty and economic disruption in the future. In the age of multiple crises, executive leadership will require depth and breadth, so how can aspiring leaders develop the range of skills they need?

  • Take part in active learning. Engage in debate and problem solve with colleagues to deal with novel situations and develop innovative solutions.
  • Learn to fail and handle defeat. Encourage a psychologically safe environment which allows innovation and for everyone to make mistakes.
  • Seek dialogue. Aspiring leaders should go through everyday life with the maxim: ‘Everyone in the world knows at least one thing that I don’t.
  • Say not to micromanagement, allowing autonomy and trust to develop with the right support.
  • Job rotation will help to develop experience and understand how departments are run.
  • Empathy, listen like a leader ‘LLL’, and social competence are becoming more important; leaders need to work through and with others – and be open to new things.

The blend of technical and soft skills has evolved, and this will help executive leaders to tackle the challenges they face. While experience will always matter, aspiring leaders with an eye for ESG and DEI can come from anywhere in an organisation. They will assist in the development of their businesses and a better understanding of global trends. This will help them to navigate major crises, deliver change and, most importantly, lead their colleagues with care and compassion.

Boardroom Navigator 2023

Curious to find out more about priorities, trends and challenges for executive teams and private equity investors?

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