The Shifting Landscape for Leadership Skill-Sets

Turbulent times have put pressure on employees to “skill up” to meet new demands from their companies. Closing this skills gap is now seen as critical. Gary Erickson of Executive Search Partners, Lisa Buckingham of Ellig Group, Brad Westveld and Jake Espenlaub of ON Partners, Jon Landau of SPMB, Bill Moran of The Moran Company, Rob Peck and Bob Cavoto of 20/20 Foresight, Sam Walton of Griffith Group, and Shawn Hartman of Academic Search join Hunt Scanlon Media to share their views on what their clients are looking for in candidates today.

August 18, 2023 – Reskilling has been a simmering hot topic for the past several years, especially as it applies to professional and technical skills. But the past year and a half may go down as the great shake-up for leadership skills, according to executive search consultants. Traditional leader skill-sets (including communication), which could once be mastered, now need to be refreshed for different, and virtual, contexts.

With the shift to remote and hybrid work, recruiters tell Hunt Scanlon Media that leaders will continually need to refresh and develop skills. That they are willing to put in the work is clear from the additional learning time sought out to confront the COVID-19 crisis.

Search consultants also say that companies can help in keeping skills sharp by moving beyond static job descriptions and skills architecture that carried on from years past. Critical capabilities can also be defined on a more ongoing basis by establishing processes to revisit, iterate, and refresh success profiles in line with strategic business priorities. 

Leading Experts Weigh In

“The pandemic substantially heightened the recognition of IT’s pivotal role in driving organizational success,” said Gary Erickson, managing partner of Executive Search Partners. “Throughout the crisis, enterprises endowed with resilient IT-based frameworks demonstrated an impressive capacity to swiftly transition from conventional in-person operations to seamless remote models, accommodating both their employees and clients with remarkable agility. Consequently, a notable upsurge in the demand for business-savvy IT professionals has emerged across various echelons within the corporate landscape ranging from adept computer programmers capable of collaborating effectively with their business counterparts to implement new sales-enhancing features, to CIOs who possess a profound comprehension of how digitization can yield tangible benefits, including heightened sales performance, cost reductions, amplified product and service offerings, and enhanced customer engagement.”

The continuous enhancement of employees’ skills and the provision of adequate training opportunities by employers have always been essential, according to Mr. Erickson. “However, in the face of heightened global competition, automation, artificial intelligence, and digitization, the urgency to update and adapt skills has intensified,” he said. “The responsibility for skill updating lies jointly with the employees and the company. This process encompasses a range of activities, from formal courses to on-the-job training and self-education outside of work hours. To ensure that their workforce remains competent and up-to-date, employers can implement various strategies, such as conducting regular skills assessments, devising comprehensive skill update plans, offering formal training programs, facilitating self-service training options, and incorporating training objectives into individual development plans and annual performance reviews. Emphasizing these initiatives will contribute to the continued growth and success of both employees and the organization as a whole.”

“The process of digital transformation has already had a profound impact on the rate of job changes, and this trend is expected to persist in the foreseeable future,” Mr. Erickson said. “Digital transformation encompasses a wide array of changes, including the seamless integration of IT systems, greater utilization of data and analytics, the integration of AI technologies, the automation of previously manual processes, the incorporation of product intelligence, and a heightened focus on customer engagement.”

“An illustrative example of the impact of digital transformation is the utilization of AI tools, which not only streamline operations but also lead to increased employee productivity,” said Mr. Erickson. “As AI takes on repetitive and time-consuming tasks, employees have more opportunities to engage in higher-value activities, such as analysis and creative problem-solving. Overall, digital transformation is reshaping the landscape of work, and businesses need to proactively adapt to this evolving paradigm to stay competitive and leverage the full potential of emerging technologies.”

“Post-COVID, clients are predominantly seeking individuals with skills with tech savviness, critical thinking, strong communications skills, high emotional intelligence, innovation, and creativity, with a heightened sense of trust and comfort with flexibility,” said Lisa Buckingham, president of Ellig Group. “Additionally, for leadership roles, effective and motivational leadership is absolute. Core competency models naturally have to become more agile for the ever-changing future of work models. These skill-sets will be essential for early, mid, and senior executive talent. The working models have changed drastically, and with the introduction of generative AI, even the more basic skills will change for everyone.”

The predictions of the hybrid workforce are all over the place, according to Ms. Buckingham. “The HR gurus predict that hybrid workforce environments will continue to be prevalent where employees split their time between working remotely and in the office,” she said. “Hybrid certainly looks to be a critical component in the Future of Work model, and how that works will continually change and evolve. Employees are creating more demand for flexibility, and roles have adjusted with the pivot of remote working during the pandemic. Clearly, the pivot forced employers to accelerate their thinking around remote working and other working models. Leaders possessing stronger and more creative communication and leadership skills certainly will be more successful in retaining and developing their teams, creating engagement, and offering better development opportunities.”

“Finding ways to generate innovation in a hybrid work model must be intentionally designed,” said Ms. Buckingham. “Some organizations have quarterly meetings focusing on innovation for a day or so. As you look at commercial real estate, the footprints of corporations are shrinking, but the problem is the remained cost; the cost of real estate remains a constant for the organization whether you are remote, hybrid, or entirely in-person. So, the costs associated with a hybrid model are a core consideration. Over time, clear data for roles will help determine whether hybrid is working from the employee and employer perspective. The hybrid dilemma has undoubtedly given some organizations an edge by testing and learning and being agile in the way the organization approaches recruiting, development, early talent development, and succession planning for the entire employee life cycle. Redesigning benefits has always been a competitive edge. New world, new needs. In today’s environment, flexibility, and new ways to measure success are critical to the working model. Investing in training, infrastructure and a culture that embraces change are critical.”

Ms. Buckingham says that online courses and workshops on platforms like Coursera, Udemy, LinkedIn Learning, and Khan Academy offer courses in everything from software development to leadership training and have been the go-to place for employers to design content and for employees to seek out content for their personal and professional development. “Webinars and virtual conferences have also become critical in the development field,” she said. “With the advent of generative AI and digital being a massive part of the future, employees are focusing their development on becoming even more technology savvy. It’s so easy to commit to two hours without a flight, a hotel, and time to travel. Everything has changed. There are multiple certificate programs that many professionals pursue in their respective lives, and earning these certificates has been made easier by the virtual nature of offerings.”

Will all this provide an edge in seeking a new role? “I predict that gaining these experiences can only make you think and work differently, giving the learner an advantage when going for that next role,” Ms. Buckingham said. “Let us remember the critical skills of networking and seeking guidance from industry veterans through mentoring/coaching will always be essential. Online platforms certainly can help accelerate those meetings as well. As we move forward in this ever-changing world, technology will be prominent in daily work. There’s nothing like a great in-person connection, but we can be intentional about when and how in today’s environment.”

The change from pre-to post-COVID has become less around ‘specific industry skill-sets (i.e., must be an EE, CS, or come directly from a competitor) to more intangibles,” said Brad Westveld, co-founder and partner of ON Partners. “Client are asking for executive backgrounds that show self-structure, self-motivation, resiliency, an ability to deal with loneliness of remote work, and an ability to manage remotely with high impact meetings, advanced PMO skills and project follow-up, along with management finesse.”

“The ability to drive collaboration and teamwork despite being in a hybrid and distributed world,” said Jake Espenlaub, partner at ON Partners. “The definition of loyalty is different than it used to be, and it’s harder than ever to build it. Those that are able to build team buy-in are reaping rewards.”

“Hybrid is certainly still the norm; however we are seeing a strong push for more F2F interactions to drive collaboration and efficiencies,” Mr. Espenlaub said. “Whether it’s hiring locally and increasing in-office requirements (i.e. three days a week) or hiring regionally with an expectation for travel, working fully remote is not happening as frequently as it was the last few years.”

For what we call ‘generational workers’ (45-plus) the key here is simply embracing new technology,” Mr. Westveld said. “Do not be afraid of learning or using new technology. This worker segment will need to continue learning new systems and being open to new ways of communication. For the younger backgrounds (entering the work force now to age 45) these skill-sets are off the charts in their ability to multitask and embrace new systems but will need to continue to work on formalizing their communication. The use of so many collaboration tools today has created less formal, ad hoc interactions and those that learn to master their communication skills in a business setting will be very powerful employees and company influencers. Companies that train on new technology, especially some of the new AI tools, but also teach the intangibles of communication, work flow, project management, will be the ones with best-in-class employees.”

“With the young generation being so accustomed to being remote and/or hybrid, the return of office expectations are fairly foreign to them,” said Mr. Espenlaub. “The question is how does that really affect development and what are the long term benefits and consequences of this societal difference to organizations as a whole and to future leadership?”

“Digital transformation is ever changing, and day to day,” Mr. Westveld said. “Use of ChatGPT, Jasper, Grammarly, for example on the AI side, is a game changer and will transform once again our work interactions and speed to finish tasks. Even the use of text, Instagram, Facebook, and collaboration tools (Teams, Zoom, RingCentral) for business related conversations is changing how we interact and drive projects. In short, digital transformation will play a pivotal role and the key is integrating it into the existing operating workstreams efficiently.

Jon Landau, partner at SPMB, said: “As an executive recruiter focused largely on the private equity markets in B2B tech, I see two distinct macro trends in leadership hiring post-COVID: the first was the hiring frenzy that occurred during the two-plus years immediately following COVID,” he said. “The frenetic pace of hiring that occurred from roughly April 2020 to June 2022 was like nothing I’ve seen in my 25 years of recruiting experience. During this period, we faced a confluence of events – newly distributed teams learning how to function in a remote environment coupled with a red-hot job market to tempt even the most loyal employee into considering whether or not the grass was, in fact, greener elsewhere. During this period, executives who possessed outstanding communication and team leadership skills were able to stand out from their peers by not only retaining their teams but also providing better efficiency and output from their teams. These leaders leveraged a range of tools and techniques, including tons of virtual communication with their teams, modern tools to stay in touch in real time, and best practices to drive engagement, recognition, and market compensation adjustments. These skills remain absolutely critical today, even in our post-COVID / hybrid work environments, and will continue to be in high demand.”

“The second macro trend in post-COVID executive hiring stands in stark contrast to the first and is characterized by a dramatic decline in executive hiring combined with a laser focus on three specific roles: CEO, CFO, and CRO,” Mr. Landau said. “Beginning roughly around Q3 of 2022, with the rising interest rates, the war in the Ukraine and the broader global economic uncertainty, businesses and PE investors shifted gears from growth mode to efficiency mode. There’s no better way for businesses to drive efficiency than to ensure that they have the most seasoned and best possible executive leading the company; the executive closest to the business finances is proven and trusted; and that your CEO and board have total faith in the person leading your sales function. As a result, SPMB has received more inbound search inquiries for CEO, CFO, and CRO searches in the past year than any other function.”

“In the private equity sector where I spend the bulk of my time, the one and only skill that requires on-going refreshing is leadership,” said Mr. Landau. “The candidates that SPMB interacts with are already at the top of their game and know their function inside and out. What cannot be taken for granted, however, is mastering the art of great people management. No matter your role on the executive leadership team, being able to build, retain and develop great teams is table stakes, and a skill that requires constant care and feeding. Soft skills that include listening, communicating with empathy, engaging with teams in a meaningful way, speaking thoughtfully and genuinely about diversity and inclusion, meeting people where they are versus where you want them to be all of these skills require on-going development and practice. The best executives out there already know this and have committed to making leadership growth an ongoing practice for themselves.”

“SPMB’s top performing clients already know that leadership development is their number one weapon in building a great company with highly engaged employees,” Mr. Landau said. “These companies have made it their top priority to support their leaders with ongoing learning and development programs, executive coaching, and a culture of modern inclusion. These are the companies we love to partner with because the CEOs model the culture, empower their teams, and prioritize the people function to be a leading voice around the table.”

“We continue to look for non-profit leadership skills such as fundraising, the ability to work with volunteer boards, build collaborative teams, and establish relationships in the community,” said Bill Moran, president of The Moran Company. “However, in today’s environment, we are also looking for skills in technology, sensitivity to diversity, and the ability to work with remote staff.”

“We recognize that our non-profit clients have unique needs,” Mr. Moran said. “Our firm creates a customized recruiting approach based on each organization’s situation and the skill-sets needed to be effective in a particular role and work environment, whether it is in-person or hybrid or fully remote. Successful leaders are able to articulate practical solutions to the challenges of internal communications within these environments, while seeking opportunities to strengthen relationships externally that will help the organization evolve and grow. We need individuals who have digital online skills. We need individuals who will make a serious commitment to diversify their workforce. Professional development is needed in both these areas.”

“Obviously, video and other online communications have made the remote environment possible,” Mr. Moran said. “The rapid pace of digital transformation requires leaders who possess the ability to learn quickly. A mastery of current digital tools is important, but it is even more important that leaders are able to keep pace with digital evolution. Curiosity and willingness to learn are important attributes in modern leaders.”

“Since 20/20 Foresight specializes in real estate and financial services, we have focused our responses on these industries,” said Rob Peck, managing principal of 20/20 Foresight. “Post-COVID, what are the most in-demand skill-sets clients are looking for? In the real estate sector, the most in-demand skill-sets in recent years have been site-level professionals including construction, project management, property management, and facilities management. There are simply fewer people with these skills in the workforce today. Many sought greater flexibility, relocated, or pivoted to a different career leaving employers scrambling to fill these positions. This increased demand extends to executives in the construction, project management and property management fields. Not only has it been challenging to find this expertise, but companies have had to work harder to retain these executives. This has meant different compensation packages. Conversely, the skill-set in lowest demand post-COVID has been professionals responsible for sourcing, identifying, and executing new investment opportunities. This is due to uncertainty in the capital markets and relatively little new investment activity.”

“Traditionally, employees have had several ways to enhance their skills — industry organizations, online learning, internal learning and development programs, and professional conferences and events,” said Mr. Peck. “However, the most effective way to acquire new skills is hands-on professional experience. This has been increasingly available in recent years as a result of the hypertensive hiring market. The high demand for labor has meant that employees at every level of a company have had to wear many different hats. This has exposed many employees to areas of their business that otherwise would have remained a mystery. The result? Employees have enriched their skills and been empowered. This phenomenon has benefited companies as well. Organizations have been able to run lean businesses with fewer redundancies and less support. Going forward, this organic occurrence is repeatable. Employers can encourage cross-functional knowledge sharing and skill development, as well as mentorship and coaching within their organization.”

“The digital transformation has changed the working landscape in multiple ways,” said Bob Cavoto, founder and managing principal of 20/20 Foresight. “Digital tools have enabled companies with dispersed operations to collaborate better. Employees can communicate and perform tasks from different locations, enabling a more diverse and geographically separated workforce,” he said. “The adoption of digital tools and platforms has also facilitated remote work and flexible work arrangements. This has not only made many workers more satisfied, but the possibility of working virtually has helped companies in more remote or undesirable locations retain a quality workforce.”

“The ability to work remotely is particularly helpful in light of the rise in mortgage interest rates,” said Mr. Peck. “With fewer workers willing to relocate and leave their low mortgage rates behind, digital capabilities allow companies to hire remote workers to fill critical skills gaps. The digital transformation has also enabled organizations to collect, analyze, and utilize vast amounts of data. This has transformed decision-making processes, allowing businesses to make informed choices based on data insights. Leaders must be adept at interpreting and leveraging data to make informed decisions, identify opportunities, and address challenges.”

“The impacts of COVID-19 are still real and continue to be felt, and we need to remain in conversation about its ongoing impacts,” said Sam Walton, partner at Griffith Group. “What are deemed as the skills of ‘effective leadership’ today are quite similar to the pre-pandemic world – COVID -19 thrust these skills and qualities to the fore. What we’re witnessing is a reevaluation of the concept of ‘hard skills vs. soft skills’; what were once considered soft skills are essential and needed now more than ever. The pandemic centered the person.”

“Flexible work arrangements are continuing to be key factors in recruitment and retention, especially in an evolving and incredibly competitive job market,” Ms. Walton said. “Many organizations have adopted a hybrid policy or are a remote-first environment. However, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, especially for client-facing organizations, whether the ‘client’ be a student of an academic institution or a family in crisis seeking support from a community mental health not-for-profit agency. It’s essential for senior leaders to demonstrate a continuous learner mindset, emotional intelligence, and the ability to seek and build consensus and collaboration, yet at the same time, have the ability to make timely and sometimes difficult decisions.”

While operations on college and university campuses have returned to normal following the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the in-demand skills that were sought after during the pandemic remain in the forefront,” said Shawn M. Hartman, senior vice president and COO of Academic Search. “During the pandemic, financial acuity had developed a new meaning to include the ability to manage reductions in staffing and programming, a need to diversify revenue streams, and increased fundraising capabilities. Campuses are seeking leaders who have crisis management skills, which include the ability to handle unforeseen challenges and make swift, informed decisions, remain at the forefront of key stakeholders’ demands. The ability to lead confidently during periods of uncertainty is a key attribute sought in candidates across various industries.”

“Gone are the days when senior leaders relied on staff to manage their correspondence, report generation, and routine personnel management matters,” Mr. Hartman said. “The pandemic also heightened the importance of technological savviness and competence. Extensive use of collaborative tools for videoconferencing, shared projects, and virtual meetings requires leaders to model skillful and creative uses of technology. Over the last few years, a notable shift has occurred in the leadership qualities campuses seek. Empathy, calmness, and reassurance are highly favored attributes in leaders. The pandemic underscored the importance of supportive and understanding leadership, and institutions recognize the positive impact such qualities have on organizational morale and productivity.”

More and more, candidates must be able to demonstrate their successes in developing inclusive policies, understanding cultural awareness, support for marginalized groups across the diversity spectrum, and building diverse teams of faculty and staff, according to Mr. Hartman. “Building diverse teams of faculty and staff is now considered a strategic advantage for organizations, as it fosters creativity, innovation, and a broader range of perspectives. In today’s fast-evolving digital landscape, technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate. For higher education institutions, like colleges and universities, keeping up with this rapid pace and implementing new technologies has become crucial. However, the academic sector has been traditionally slower to adopt changes compared to the corporate world. With students increasingly relying on technology, it is essential for institutions to follow suit and adapt quickly to stay relevant.”

Mr. Hartman also notes that having visionary leaders is the key to success in this digital age. “These leaders understand the importance of technology and can discern which platforms are suitable for their institution, avoiding hasty decisions to jump on the bandwagon with the latest technology trend,” he said. “They grasp how technology impacts student learning, faculty teaching methods, and staff workflows, and leverage these insights to drive positive change. When searching for new leaders, higher education institutions must prioritize candidates who comprehend the role of the digital era in education. Technology’s pervasive influence demands a shift in the traditional approach to learning and administration. A visionary leader can identify and implement tech solutions that enhance the learning experience while streamlining operations.”

Related: Attracting Top Talent in the Age of AI

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media


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