why tech know-how is — and is not — a key ingredient in C-suite success

There's an interesting convergence around talent afoot, with nearly half of all openings at S&P 100 companies targeting the same 37 roles, chief among them tech positions like software developers and systems engineers and architects. And if acquiring these hard skills is such a focus for companies today, it's worth asking how far up the chain of command that trend goes. In other words, will it be expected of the organizational leaders of the future that they are technical savants as well?

For answers, we'll look at a composite of current C-suite leaders today, paying close attention to how that profile is changing, then turn to some of the skills, competencies and traits that will most likely translate to success for the executive leaders of tomorrow. 

a profile in change: c-suite leadership today

What's undeniable today is that the profiles of C-suite leaders, and the paths they took to get there, have undergone a dramatic shift. Long gone are the days of a slow, steady and sequential ascent to the top of the org chart, organized around a series of internal promotions that are as regular as the intervals on a tape measure. Right now, in fact, only one fifth of CEOs made it to their current roles by way of internal promotions. 

What's more, the traditional backgrounds and educations of C-suite leaders are changing, too. Of the Fortune 100 leaders included in a recent study by U.S. News & World Report, for example, fewer than 40 percent held MBAs — a surprising finding, given how closely this credential is often linked with executive ascent.

Still more surprising, and clearly pointing toward an increased overall emphasis on technical aptitude, is the data around undergraduate education for leaders today. The most common major among CEOs? It's no longer economics or business administration, but rather computer science. And no less tellingly, the same study identified "software engineer" as the second-most-common role CEOs held previous to taking the reins. ("Consultant" was the most common.)

Taken together, these data points paint a picture of C-suite leadership in the midst of significant transformation. And if a greater degree of technical know-how is in fact increasingly characteristic of executive leadership, it seems safe to extrapolate that search committees are to a certain extent privileging these skills as well when they evaluate potential leaders. Of course, whether or not these hard skills actually correlate with success in executive leadership roles is a different question altogether. 

blending the new with the old: c-suite leadership tomorrow

Most global companies today are looking to increase their use of breakthrough technologies like AI, robotics and more, so it makes sense that tech skills should be increasingly well represented in the C-suite. And all of these skills are very much on the minds of the leaders themselves, too.

In one recent report, for example, 86 percent of organizational leaders acknowledged they must "reinvent their ability to learn." By the same token, only 25 percent of respondents believed their organizations were effectively developing digital leaders — and only 30 percent felt they were developing leaders capable of addressing and solving evolving business challenges. And the number-one reason the competencies of leadership are changing, according to the report? New technologies. 

This seeming paradox — on the one hand, acknowledging the need for new kinds of leadership; on the other, failing to do anything about it — echoes a similar finding from our CFOs' Pathway to Growth Study. There, we pointed out the perils companies today face as they evaluate trade-offs between investing in talent and tech, and concluded that most businesses will struggle to see optimal ROI from tech investments without also investing in skilled talent to effectively leverage them. At the moment, unfortunately, that's something many companies appear unwilling to do. 

So what technical competencies should organizations prioritize now in order to better nurture and develop leaders who can help them take on the business challenges of tomorrow? Studies indicate that the greatest increases in demand are likely to be concentrated in the following areas:

  • artificial intelligence (AI)
  • data science
  • machine learning
  • cybersecurity
  • DevOps
  • HR management and pay systems
  • amazon web services
  • internet of things (IoT)

Baseline knowledge of these technologies will be important for tomorrow's leaders. At the same time, a consistent finding across multiple studies is that, once people are promoted into C-suite roles, technical and functional expertise matter less and less. Instead, core leadership skills, together with a strong grasp of business fundamentals, are what define day-to-day success. For example, knowing the right technology to invest in, and being able to accurately forecast the associated ROI, is likely going to contribute far more business value than, say, firsthand experience using that technology.  

key takeaways

So how does our rapidly transforming technology landscape — transformation that increasingly underpins business growth — effectively reshuffle the cards in terms of leadership traits that are most in demand today? Is technical competency going to be a core requirement for executive leaders going forward?

As to the latter, the answer is probably yes... and also no. While leaders with technical training do appear to be gaining a foothold in the executive suite, the leadership traits that matter to most search committees — such as communication skills, executive presence and the ability to inspire others and lead change — remain relatively fixed. So even as automation reshapes the workplace at large and is embraced by leaders across industries, the key attributes those leaders possess, like empathy and emotional intelligence, most certainly will not. In that sense, traditional leadership traits stand out as more, not less, important in the digital age.

Of course, we also know that finding experienced leaders to take on your business challenges remains a difficulty, now more than ever. And we're here to help. Connect with us today to discover how we can solve for your most pressing talent pain points, address unique leadership challenges and ensure you reach your business goals — both in 2019 and beyond.