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Executive Search | 9 minute read

What are the 4 essential traits of today’s executive?

September 20, 2022

This blog was published in October 2017 and has been updated for stats and relevancy.


The number of C-Suite positions has tripled over the past 20 years – and now includes a number of additional roles such as chief information security officer (CISO), chief diversity officer (CDO) and chief experience officer (CXO). Although there are now more seats at the executive table, determining the right scope and talent to fit in each role is not for the faint of hearted. 

In the face of a looming recession, growing geopolitical tensions and ongoing skills shortages,  the job of a C-suite executive has never been so important. While managing business risks is still a top concern, today's executive needs to be cautiously optimistic, which is why 83% of companies are focusing their business strategy on growth, as reported in PwC's 2022 Pulse Survey. 

Not only are the structure and makeup of today’s executive teams changing, but so are the required abilities, career paths, qualifications and responsibilities. In addition, 40% of companies say they “can’t pursue business opportunities” because they lack the right leadership, according to McKinsey & Company. Why? In large part, because of change. Evolutions in technology, shifting hierarchical structures, globalization and industry disruption are all impacting how organizations appoint their executives.

In light of these trends and challenges, it's important to determine the most important traits of today's executive leadership, the non-traditional career paths many are taking, as well as the strategies that companies need to consider when making decisions around the size, structure and makeup of their C-Suite in the face of the ever-present, dynamic global shifts.

What are the four essential traits of today's executive?

Every organization is in search of the right executive leadership. Leadership sets the example for your workforce to follow; they are drivers of culture and employment brand, and they make strategic decisions that impact your ability to grow, evolve, recruit and retain, not just today but for years down the road. Moreover, each organization is unique; the reason you appoint particular executives to a given role is exclusive and must align with your culture and strategic business objectives. As you evaluate the current state of your executive team, assess your role as an executive, or are in the midst of filling an important executive-level role, consider these four traits:


Today's executives are accessible, redefining "open door"

Significant amounts of thought leadership touch on the importance of an “open door” policy with regard to leadership, culture and employee engagement. But this isn’t simply an idea; it’s a business imperative. For example, the CEO Genome Project revealed that executives who develop an "understanding of their stakeholders' needs and motivations, then get people on board by driving performance and aligning them around the goal of value creation" are 75% more successful in their roles.

While these insights are still relevant, today's executives must take four additional actions in order to successfully lead their companies through change, according to the Harvard Business Review. They must prioritize what matters most, invest in building trust with stakeholders, simplify their portfolio and prepare for shareholder activism.  Success in this instance refers to business impact, but travels much deeper – significantly impacting culture, employee engagement, authenticity and transparency

Senior executives need to be accessible in the office, virtually and in the media. Through the use of social media, networking, event attendance, keynote speeches and, internally, by creating a genuine “open door” feeling that welcomes your people, the best leadership is available and accessible. Being an inspirational leader people want to rally behind now starts well before an employee joins your company. For example, C-Suite executives are often rated externally by user-generated platforms such as Glassdoor. Being accessible and having a rapport with your constituencies will, in turn, drive sales, customer and employment brand awareness, and even stock price and investor confidence.


Today's executives aren't following traditional career paths

Non-traditional career paths are much more common today than in the past. For example, a leader may begin in engineering, move into product management, then obtain the role of chief marketing officer. Non-traditional but highly relevant! Marketing needs to understand product, and product needs to understand marketing, and both marketing and product need to understand how they align with one another. Ultimately, companies are looking for well-rounded leaders that can work cross-functionally in a highly collaborative and empathetic way despite the variety in experiences, backgrounds and points of view.  

Digging a bit deeper, technology and digitization are disrupting all industries and geographies; decisions need to be made with conviction and efficiency. Agility and the ability to fail fast/forward have become king. An executive with distinct functional responsibilities, combined with a diverse background and career path, provides a company with the ability to respond more quickly to changes in the market, embrace multiple viewpoints and approaches, and creatively tackle a variety of challenges – while doing so with conviction and decisiveness


Today's executives are shying away from "jack of all trades"

As explored above, many of today’s most impactful executives are following non-linear, non-traditional career paths. However, this doesn’t mean that career progression isn’t highly relevant (and critical). It is. Specifically, there is danger in hiring a “jack of all trades” candidate if the right balance isn’t struck. You may find a candidate with experience in multiple disciplines, all of which seem highly relevant to the role you’re looking to fill. 

While "jack of all trade" candidates are highly attractive, their experience should still follow some sort of trajectory with building blocks/puzzles pieces that can be used to track career progression. For the company searching to fill a role, consider the following questions. What is the candidate's narrative? What did they learn through each experience and how do they apply it? Were their career transitions based on sound judgment and decisiveness or, by change or external factors? What are they looking to achieve and learn in their next role?

As you search for the right executive, it’s important to understand the job you’re hiring for in and out, and ultimately how a given candidate’s background aligns with the responsibilities, culture and goals you’re filling. Jacks of all trades can be exceptional fits, but companies must dive deep into their motivations, their long-term goals, and their trajectory – to ensure they aren’t “masters of none”. In other words, these jacks of all trades should be able to specialize and/or translate their skills to your company’s role and industry. As a candidate, it's all about your narrative and demonstrating that you’ve made thoughtful decisions throughout your career; decisions that make you more well-rounded than those you are competing against.


Today's executives are passionate, "fit" and willing to evolve

Executives make strategic decisions and serve as the company’s most visible and prominent leaders. The better an executive fits with the company’s strategy and evolving needs, the more successful they will be. Toward this end, there are certain characteristics that are timeless. One of these is passion. Leadership comes in many forms, and passion is perhaps the most integral trait. Passion can’t be manufactured or pretended. It’s ingrained, organic and obvious. At WilsonHCG, our executive search clients seek passion and we carefully assess for it in every interaction.  

Unique aspects of a candidate’s profile, such as passion, character and willingness to evolve, determine their fit with an organization. However, there are a wealth of internal and external factors that can impact a company's needs, and executives must be able to adapt to these changes when necessary. For example, is the executive’s passion waning? Are their motivations growing with those of the company? As the company evolves, moves into new markets and/or expands, are you seeing the executive strive to evolve?

Organizations need to actively evaluate the degree of alignment between their executives and the strategic needs of the business. Most companies undertake a rigorous selection process before hiring a new C-Suite member, but are you evaluating fit during the leader’s tenure? This is a must. As your company moves forward, as your C-Suite evolves, as the traits you seek and the ways in which you attract, retain and manage the careers of your people change, ensure you have the right leadership in place.

Leadership sets the example. Hire talent your workforce will be inspired to follow.

Ensure you have the right leadership in place
Leadership sets the example, not just today but for years down the road. Hire talent your workforce will be inspired to follow.
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WilsonHCG is an award-winning, global leader in total talent solutions. Operating as a strategic partner, it helps some of the world’s most admired brands build comprehensive talent functions. With a global presence spanning more than 65 countries and six continents, WilsonHCG provides a full suite of configurable talent services including recruitment process outsourcing (RPO), executive search, contingent talent solutions and talent consulting. TALENT.™ It’s more than a solution, it’s who we are.