The DNA of Strong Leadership

AESC member firms explore the competencies and strengths that make up a successful leader in the current business environment

During and following the COVID-19 global pandemic, many around the globe looked to business leaders to address environmental, social, and governmental issues. And, today, these expectations persist. “The pandemic may have passed for now, but we have other critical events disrupting our businesses and lives,” said Pekarsky & Co. Partner Ranju Shergill. “Whether it’s cyber-attacks, economic downturns, climate change contributing to extreme natural disasters, social injustices or geopolitical threats, we need leaders who can lead us through uncertainty, navigate through disruptions, and be compelling enough for others to follow and work with them.”

According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, a large percentage of individuals across more than 20 countries expect CEOs to take a public stand and act on climate change, discrimination, the wealth gap, immigration and employee treatment. They must do all of this while performing daily tasks and leading their organization toward success – in the eyes of investors, consumers, employees, and the general public. That’s a lot of pressure for one person.

Navigating such enormous internal and external pressures requires a complex combination of leadership competencies. Leaders who find success in the current, uncertain business environment have a new array of executive skills and experience, which look very different from the strengths of five to ten years ago.

A Focus on Soft Skills

AESC Members who place top C-suite and board leaders around the world agree that leading teams in the new world has elevated the need for “soft skills.” “These skills, such as effective communication, adaptability, critical thinking, resilience, and agility, are crucial for navigating the challenges of both executive search and the broader business environment,” according to Richardson Executive Search.

• The Rise of Adaptability, Agility & Resilience

These are some of the most in-demand skills because they enable organizations to navigate times of uncertainty and turn challenges into opportunities. “Given the current economic climate we are moving through, it’s fair to say many businesses are finding themselves in a state of flux,” said Barrington Hibbert Associates. “Things are changing rapidly and the environment can often be quite challenging. Firms are increasingly searching for executives who can strongly demonstrate resilience and adaptability. We’ve seen organizations specifically ask us for candidates who can demonstrate experience of working in challenging environments, where they have been able to bounce back, adapt and find opportunities to thrive.”

Adaptability allows leaders to adjust their ideas and behavior to various conditions, enabling them to think creatively and predict shifts and their potential impacts. According to 2023 AESC research, which surveyed more than 1,000 leaders from around the world, resilience is the third top competency needed to thrive in the current business environment. Resilience complements adaptability because it allows them to bounce back from setbacks and “learn from their experiences to confidently manage new challenges,” according to Richardson Executive Search.

Kenniff Leadership President Patrick Kenniff reinforces the importance of these skills by stating, “Adaptability and resilience are more necessary than ever, as leaders face the impact of many external forces, such as the emergence of artificial intelligence, the changing work environment most recently influenced by the pandemic, and finally, the economic and political upheavals that are affecting the security and stability of nations around the world.”

Resilience and adaptability are especially critical in times of crisis. Ward Howell Ukraine Managing Partner Igor Kabuzenko explains that resilience and adaptability are especially critical in times of crisis. Using Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an example, Kabuzenko explains, ““A resilient leader will not allow their team to fall into despair due to losses,” he said. “They will show the way forward. They will encourage. They will give the will to live and, through their example, allow the leadership potential of each person to unfold.” Agility is also one of the top skills organizations demand from executives today. This competency enables leaders to adapt in a timely manner, allowing them to quickly respond to changing conditions.

“Leadership agility has become essential in today’s dynamic and often uncertain and volatile environment,” explained KBRS Managing Partner Andrea Forbes Hurley. “Responses to political, technological, economic, environmental, and social drivers of change still need to be strategic and thoughtful – often leaders are being asked to build the response plan while simultaneously delivering on it. The journey that organizations were built for will regularly change and leaders will need to be able to evolve to achieve their goals.”

• Interpersonal Skills: Emotional Intelligence, Empathy, Humility & Optimism

Interpersonal skills, such as effective communication, empathy, relationship building and humility, are integral for interacting with internal personnel at every level of the organization and with external consumers or investors. These competencies allow leaders to build trust among their teams and with the public.

CnetG Asia Partner Raj Kumar Paramanathan stressed that today’s leaders must have the ability to step back and listen and the “ability to consider all views before moving forward, especially when driving innovation and transformation.” Paramanathan said that executives should also harness “confident humility,” a concept by Psychologist Adam Grant. This refers to “being secure enough in your expertise and strengths to admit your ignorance and weaknesses.”

Having these interpersonal skills enables leaders to tap into their emotional intelligence, which refers to “the ability to identify and regulate our own emotions, to recognize the emotions of other people and feel empathy toward them, and to use these abilities to communicate effectively and build healthy, productive relationships with others.” 2023 AESC research indicates that emotional intelligence is the top competency needed in the current business environment. AESC CEO Karen Greenbaum explains that an “emotionally intelligent leader leads with optimism grounded in realism.” Being emotionally intelligent and realistically optimistic enable leaders to inspire others, encourage innovation, see value in all, and see opportunities in times of challenges.

“In growing businesses and organizations, leaders today need to have demonstrated qualities of emotional intelligence, empathy, integrity and vision,” said Kenniff. “The close link between leadership and intelligence is increasingly acknowledged (‘leadership intelligence’). Also, leaders need to be strong communicators and listeners, with an open and positive approach to diversity in all its dimensions (‘cultural intelligence’).”

A Focus on Strategy to Drive Change

Navigating the current business climate requires critical and strategic thinking. Leaders must be results-oriented, the second most coveted leadership competency for the current business climate, according to 2023 AESC research. According to Avant Advisors Partners Nina Kurola and Anja Kuparinen, today’s leaders must have the “capability to focus and prioritize, make decisions in uncertain conditions, drive results and renew businesses and business models." Leaders who have these competencies can drive change, and usher in a new era of business innovation and industry transformation.

Emu Search Managing Partner Ed Michelsberg explained that organizations are looking for leaders who can “embed the right strategy and operating rhythm [within] every discussion with key stakeholders." They’re also able to instill strategic decision-making throughout the wider business to “deliver financial performance and operational results.”

To determine whether leaders have such skills and are capable of driving change, organizations look to their past experiences. Shergill explained, “Having a depth of leadership experience with companies that have gone through significant growth, rebuilding or transformation is what clients are looking for in these times, and that’s a reflection of the pace of change and disruption around us. Leaders need to predict, prepare for, and manage risk and these skills are much more in demand than ever before.”

Prioritizing Employees & Culture

2023 AESC research revealed an organization’s purpose, vision, mission as well as its culture are the top two drivers for attraction and retention. The top five list also includes company brand and reputation, the strength of the people that work there, and finally compensation. Note that compensation is in the fifth place because it is not enough to attract and retain talent. In the end, purpose and culture are the key. “Leadership tends to reflect the overall culture of an organization,” according to Barrington Hibbert Associates. “The new generation of talent has very different ethical expectations of their senior teams, and if this is not demonstrated, they will simply look elsewhere. As any organization knows, its survival is based on its ability to continually attract the best talent.”

Executives and board members should create purpose and build, lead and inspire teams, according to Kurola and Kuparinen. “Not only is the capability of building elite teams critical, but leaders must also align their teams on strategy and vision to execute projects and drive necessary change.” Jennifer Mondoux, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, MondouxRollins Partners Inc., emphasized the importance of “people leadership” as well. Leaders must have “the ability to coach, mentor and develop teams; the ability to act as a true servant leader – that’s the magic.”

While cultivating a purpose-driven culture and a sense of belonging is essential, it is also challenging in today’s hybrid environment. KBRS Managing Partner Kevin Stoddart advises leaders to reconsider how they engage employees. Stoddart encourages leaders to be more intentional when building relationships with direct reports and broader teams -whether it’s online or in-person – during regular meetings, check-ins, formal professional development, or social activities. “Executives need to think about how they show up with their teams and how they deliver value at every interaction,” said Stoddart. “That said, strong leaders reinforce accountability and results while still accommodating team needs. High-performing employees will continue to seek high-performance cultures that align with their personal values – where leaders challenge themselves and the people around them, and where leaders effectively engage diverse teams to set goals that motivate and reward employees while also contributing to organizational performance.”

Finding Strong Leaders

“Due to the complex and rapidly evolving nature of today's economic and geopolitical landscape, the current business environment demands leaders who can make swift and informed decisions, build strong teams, and set the right strategic direction,” said Michelsberg. “These qualities are interwoven and enable businesses to navigate challenges, capitalize on opportunities, mitigate risks, and thrive in an ever-changing landscape.” In short, leaders truly must do it all. However, finding a leader with all the necessary strengths that the business environment demands is not an easy feat. That’s where top executive search firms come in.

Executive search firms find and place top leaders around the globe using their industry and functional knowledge, rigorous assessments, and extensive referral networks. Firms and their consultants typically exhibit similar competencies to those of strong leaders, which helps when identifying top talent. Mondoux explained that the other key piece to being a successful consultant “is truly understanding candidate motivation. That’s a tough one and requires a high degree of skill in understanding the candidate, their story, and [whether] the move makes sense for them – and for the client.”

In addition to having a comprehensive view of the client pool, executive search firms become experts in the client organization, its market and industry, goals, and leadership needs. Their specialization coupled with the many other assets at their disposal enable them to accurately assess the global business environment and place leaders that fit all in-demand criteria. “The business of executive search is an art, not a science,” said Mondoux. “It’s about people, and it’s imperfect. In the end, the more you can understand behavior and motivation in today’s climate, the better you will be able to put in the right leader who can help your client reach their goals faster.”