November 23rd, 2021

While there’s a lot of talk about it being “lonely at the top,” research shows you’re far from alone in the modern C-suite. The new C-suite includes a broader range of titles than those of previous decades. Chief Human Resource Officers, Chief Product Officers, Chief Diversity Officers, Chief Brand Officers, Chief Revenue Officers. Unlike the C-suites of yesterday, today’s C-suite is packed, serving as a reflection of the new skills valued at the very top of business.

This new C-suite allows you to engage other “functional experts” on challenges and opportunities that affect the business, on a very macro, all-encompassing level. You’re faced with thinking broader, bigger, bolder. Acquisitions. Preparing for an IPO. Financial acumen, SEC reporting, and proxy season. Taking on entirely new markets; patents; contracts; the inner workings of a boardroom. These fascinating topics are just a few of the issues facing today’s executives – and it all happens fast in our digital, global world. 

But what does it take to get there?

What skills are necessary to get to the C-suite?

Financial acumen. Financial acumen for C-suite executives goes far beyond budgeting. Preparing for an IPO, for example, requires precise financial management, forecasting, and preparation of SEC-mandated reports. Mergers and acquisitions also present the chance to learn about complex business dealings, strategic financial thinking, negotiation skills, extensive due diligence processes, and more. Having the confidence to speak to these scenarios, and understanding metrics related to specific industries or venture capital fundraising rounds, will only reinforce your leadership skills in the C-suite and beyond.

Human capital. The CHRO is increasingly becoming a sought-after player in the boardroom. Without a doubt, HR has gone through the most massive transformations in the last decade, propelled further by the Covid-19 pandemic. With pressing challenges such as remote workforce, the Great Resignation, employee burnout, and pay and racial equity, every leader in the C-suite needs to make human capital a priority. A 2020 study by the IBM Institute for Business Value showed “C-suite executives now rank organizational complexity, inadequate skills and employee burnout as the top 3 greatest challenges their businesses will face in the next 2 years.”

Understanding and embracing emerging technologies. Recent Gartner research suggests that every C-suite leader needs to be capable of grasping technologies that are quickly becoming the norm across all business units. From payroll platforms and Artificial Intelligence to the Internet of Things and Customer Success software and automation, leaders who fall behind in these “hard” software and technology proficiencies affect the performance of the entire business. 

Gartner notes that: “Demand has increased most for C-suite hard skills around artificial intelligence, data science, machine learning techniques and cybersecurity – skills that enable senior executives to drive digital business strategies more effectively and advocate for enterprise process automation to drive efficiency.” 

Design thinking. The same Gartner report notes that design thinking is the number one “soft” skill required for today’s C-suite leadership. Design thinking combines the best of the design process, experience, user insights, and strategic thinking to create engaging end-user experiences and drive overall business growth. Today, we live and breathe by the products and apps we turn to every day; our digital-centric world has given design respect in the upper ranks of business, but all C-suite leaders must have a respect and understanding of this level of strategic thinking to solve problems, transform businesses, and pull the team forward.

Governance. As leaders rise, even just to VP level, they’re often supporting C-suite leaders who are in turn supporting the board and broader business efforts. Leaders at these levels may be asked to present to the board, cull data for board reports, share insights about high-priority initiatives, and more. They may be asked to network with the board or be informally mentored by the board. For executives with an eye toward entering the C-suite or serving on a board one day themselves, these interactions present critical opportunities to hone your skills, gain top-rank visibility, and understand what happens behind the scenes in corporate governance. Even for executives who have no desire to serve on a board themselves, these opportunities serve as an important foundation for learning what it takes to “steward the business”. 

Empathy. Emotional intelligence and the ability to “read a room” have never been more critical. Leaders need to re-assess how they “show up” for their team, physically (camera on, hands showing, on time, and no distractions), but also how they “show up” from a policy and care perspective. The pandemic has proven that flexibility matters, healthcare is crucial – including mental health – and that we’re all humans, doing the best we can, often in strikingly different scenarios in our homes/offices.

Listening. Mental health days. Being tuned into the needs of the team, and the ability to drive connection can make or break the team – and it all begins at the very top. Tuned in leaders who can prove they are human-first, caring, and willing to listen are the new high performers in the C-suite. 

Societal issues. It’s incredible to imagine the power a company can play – the impact, the progress, the action! – when it does good. Paying attention to societal issues and thinking deeply about how to respond is a key role for every C-suite executive to embrace. 

As reported by “3 percent of leaders agree business should have a positive impact on society beyond pursuing profits. What’s more is that three in four respondents acknowledged they have changed their perspective on the role of their leadership over the past five years by looking at the impact of their company on society-at-large, not just their shareholders.”

Here at Athena, we recently discussed what it means for companies to take a stand, through the lens of CHRO Tracy Layney of Levi Strauss & Co. Tracy spoke about Levi Strauss & Co’s more than 100-year history of taking a stand across a wide range of issues, and how it’s become ingrained in who they are as a brand, in their values, in their actions. And they do it confidently – knowing they can’t (won’t) please everyone.

 “I think there’s almost no issue that you can take that people aren’t going to disagree with you. [Organizational leaders should be] considering and understanding what that potential blowback could be, and then making a decision that still feels right for you. Because it’s not about pleasing everybody all the time, that’s actually just not possible,” Tracy explained. (Athena members, catch the on-demand Salon any time by logging into Athena). 

For executives with a goal of landing in the C-suite, for those in career transition, on the path to the boardroom or those who surround and support a board – Athena is here to help. Joining Athena gives you access to the most relevant and current business lessons, in an engaging and safe peer-to-peer learning environment. 



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