Latest research published in the July-August 2022 edition of the Harvard Business Review  show that your social skills is now making it easier to open the C-suite door.

The role of a C-Suite Executive has changed substantially over the last decade or so. What we see now is that executives need to be able to: motivate diverse, technologically savvy and global workforces;  play the role of corporate statesperson dealing with governments and influential NGOs; and move quickly into a new company and applying their skills in that situation. In response companies have significantly redefined the roles of C-Suite executives. Trans dental traditional capabilities such as financial and operational and technical expertise is still relevant, however when companies search for top leaders today, they attribute less importance to these capabilities than before and prioritise one capability above all the others –  Strong Social Skills!

This is the conclusion Sadun, Fuller, Hansen and Neal (2022) came to after analysing 5,000 job descriptions of five groups of C-Suite leaders i.e., CEOs, CFOs CIOs, CMOs and CHROs. As a matter of fact, the number of job descriptions mentioning strength in managerial, financial and material resources decreased by about 40% since 2007 and job descriptions mentioning strength in social skills increased by 30% over the same period.

The researchers refer to “social skills” in the context of a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility for working with different types of people and groups, and what psychologists call “theory of the mind” – the capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling. Sadun et al. (2022) list the following reasons for this paradigm shift:

  1. Firm Size and Complexity

The focus on social skills is especially evident in large firms and more so in publicly listed multinational enterprises and those that are involved in mergers and acquisitions. In larger and more complex organisations, “top managers are increasingly expected to coordinate disparate and specialised knowledge, match the organisation’s problems with people who can solve them, and effectively orchestrate internal communication.” The importance of social skills in large companies also plays out in critical relationships that leaders in those firms must cultivate and maintain with outside stakeholders.

  1. Information-processing Technologies

Companies that rely significantly on information processing technologies today, also tend to be those that need leaders with especially strong social skills. The reason being when companies automate routine tasks, their competitiveness hinges on capabilities those computer systems simply don’t have – for example judgement, creativity and perception. In technologically intensive firms, where automation is widespread leaders have to align a heterogenous workforce, respond to unexpected events, and manage conflict in the decision-making process. That is best done by executives with strong social skills.

Furthermore, social media is posing additional challenges for the C-Suite executive calling on top leaders to manage social medical action in real time.

Diversity and inclusion is another challenge for C-Suite leaders that demands strong social skills, particularly theory of mind.

This means companies in future need to focus systemically on building social skills. Though companies better appreciate the importance of social skills in executive performance, they made little progress in developing processes for evaluating a candidate’s proficiency in those skills and determine aptitude for further growth. For example, few companies invest in training to improve the interviewing skills of staffers involved in recruiting – least of all senior executives or independent directors, who are presumed to have the background and perspective necessary to make sound judgement. Companies are more and more relying on psychometric assessments and simulation. However, according to the researchers, “psychometric tests shed little light on how effective that person will be when interacting with various groups”. Also, simulation exercises are usually designed around a specific scenario.

An option could be to place high-potential leaders in positions that oblige them to interact with various employee populations and external constituencies and then clearly monitor the performance in those roles.

Utilising Artificial Intelligence to analyse huge datasets can assist in future to accurately identify a leaders’ social skills levels. The point that Sadun et al. is making is that social skills should be developed at all levels of the organisations. Recruiting outside for executive positions is risky. Also, competitiveness in the open market for people with great social skills will become fierce. In many countries it is already the case. So, companies will benefit form a “grow your own” approach that allows internal up-and-comers to hone and demonstrate a range of interpersonal abilities.

It is clear from the above that the disciplines and professions where you traditionally find a greater collection of people with social skills could be better positioned to fulfill C-Suite responsibilities. The HR professional fits that profile!

To prepare HR Practitioners for a C-Suite position KR has arranged a one day seminar: From HR to C-Suite: What it takes to become an HR Director Seminar. For more information click HERE or contact Debbie Atwell at


Sadun, R., Fuller, J. B., Hansen, S., & Neal, P. (2022, July-August 1). The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: