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Top 4 Leadership Skills C-Suite Executives Need

It should come as no surprise that once you hit the C-Suite, leadership skills will not only be important but necessary. But ‘leadership’ is a broad category, and what might’ve made a good leader thirty years ago isn’t what makes a good leader today.

One way in which the pandemic has highlighted what people need in leaders today is in how female world leaders are outperforming their male counterparts in this crisis. 

This gender gap reveals some of the things that women leaders tend to be better at, and which are regarded as more important nowadays. We’ll discuss what these are later in the article. 

Putting together these reasons behind the gender gap with responses we’ve collected from business leaders across a range of industries, we’ve identified the top 4 skills that C-level leaders need to develop and demonstrate.

Read on for what makes a good leader today, and what skills leaders - regardless of gender - should cultivate to lead their organisations to success.

The pandemic years have shaped the kind of leadership we value 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up traditional notions of how we do business all over the world. Nowhere is this more apparent than the traits that we now most need and value in our business leaders. 

When the pandemic broke out, a lot of media attention focused on how female world leaders were coping better than their male counterparts. A study by researchers from University of Liverpool and University of Reading found that COVID-19 outcomes were systematically better in countries led by women.

Curious about whether this pattern of women leaders outperforming men is replicated at the workplace, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman conducted organisational research that found that women were rated as more effective leaders than men during the pandemic. This could indicate that women perform better in a crisis. 

Respondents to Zenger and Folkman’s survey put greater importance on interpersonal skills such as “inspires and motivates,” “communicates powerfully,” “collaboration/teamwork,” and “relationship building” - all of which women were rated higher on. 

This goes to show that as we feel our way out of this pandemic, we are increasingly looking for more than traditional leadership strengths. Instead of looking up to the hierarchical, command and control structures of the past and simply being told what to do, people now look to be inspired and motivated. The best leaders are able to engage and motivate their employees through empathy and exceptional communication skills.

Regardless of gender, leaders from all organisations should strive to take the learnings from this crisis to better meet their people’s needs. 


What do business leaders believe are the most important skills for C-suite executives?

When we asked C-level leaders what are the top skills and attributes that C-suite executives need, our respondents frequently cite the pandemic in the justification of their choices. 

Read on for what industry leaders say are the top 4 leadership skills that C-suite executives need post-2020.

Top Skill #1. Inspire and motivate

Respondents in Zenger and Folkman’s research placed a high level of importance on the ability to inspire and motivate when it comes to the type of leaders they perceive to be effective.

Peter Hannaford, founder and senior partner at Portman Partners, agrees with them. Hannaford believes that “the CEO should have the ability to communicate a vision to inspire, motivate and lead others to contribute to the organisation's success. Great CEOs are admired and respected by their people who are inspired to follow their example. They are followed by people because they want to, not because they have to.

To develop your motivation skills, it is necessary to understand that the ability to motivate action in others begins with your own personal motivation. Taking motivation courses can help you get to know the self and channel its energy, develop the skills to transfer motivation onto others, and influence the surrounding physical and social environment to inspire action and progress.

inspire quote

Top Skill #2. Communicate powerfully

Strong communication skills is one of the top skills that the business leaders we spoke to believe C-level executives need. Unsurprisingly, one of the interpersonal skills emphasised by respondents in Zenger and Folkman’s research is “communicates powerfully”. 

One of the most obvious changes the pandemic has brought about is that many of us are having less in-person interactions. It is therefore essential that we pay attention to how we communicate in the avenues that are open to us, for instance, in video calls and through messages.

Justin Nabity, CEO of Physicians Thrive, suggests adopting an open communication approach. “It’s important that the communication done with your employees or coworkers should be constructive and the information shared during that communication should be accurate and relevant,” Nabity says. 

Nabity continues, “Having open communication will help the employees feel that they are a part of the company. Engage with your employees especially when they are online and make sure they understand what the company's objectives are and what they have to achieve. When these points are communicated with them clearly they will feel valued and included.”

James Lloyd-Townshend, CEO and Chairman of Frank Recruitment Group also emphasises the importance of good communication skills especially during this point in history. Townshend says, “During these past months, we’ve all seen the negative effects poor communication can have on organisations in times of crisis. If you want to inspire trust and resilience amongst your workforce, knowing how to communicate with your teams is just as crucial as knowing what to communicate.

shaking hands

Top Skill #3. Deploy emotional intelligence and empathy

Zenger and Folkman found that one main trait we want in our leaders is someone who can be sensitive and understanding of the anxiety, stress and frustration that people are feeling. 

This ability to empathise is part of someone’s emotional intelligence, as Zarina Bahadur, CEO & Founder of 123 Baby Box puts it. “Emotional intelligence or EQ is the capacity to manage your own emotions and those around you,” Bahadur says. “Empathy, relationship management, and social awareness are key features of emotional intelligence. Developing emotional intelligence requires being open to constructive criticism and being self-aware.

Furthermore, marketing consultant Bethan Vincent emphasises the necessity for leaders to be able to empathise with people from different backgrounds. Vincent says, “Great leaders understand how to inspire and engage other people across the entire organisation. Gone are the days when a leader could sit issuing commands from an ivory tower without fear of being questioned. Leaders now have to be able to understand multiple points of view and experiences, alongside having the ability to influence stakeholders from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Vincent’s words reflect a sign of the times. Summer of 2020 was when the Black Lives Matter movement reached a peak in the UK in solidarity with US protesters after the killing of George Floyd. A LinkedIn analysis shows that while overall C-suite hiring fell 18% in 2020 year-on-year in the US, the hiring of chief diversity officers (CDO) grew 84% as a proportion of total C-suite hires.

If you’re looking to build a culture of respect and equality at your workplace, explore the wide range of highly reputable diversity training courses listed on our site.

diversity quote

Top Skill #4. Be adaptable and resilient

We’ve seen the world around us change in the blink of an eye in 2020. It is therefore unsurprising that our respondents highlight adaptability and resilience as particularly important qualities that C-level leaders need to lead companies through uncharted waters.

A report by EY shows that “companies that are positioned to sense change and adapt to it quickly – or, even better, proactively – are the most likely not only to survive, but to thrive in the face of disruption”. EY cites Ford as a successful example that managed to transform its plants to produce PPE almost overnight.

Christen Costa, CEO of Gadget Review, says that we should have all learnt the value of being flexible. Costa says, “COVID should have taught everyone the need for adaptability, especially as a CEO or other C-suite exec. Adaptability, to me, is the ability to think on your feet and react to big changes for the good of your company.”

Meanwhile, Rita Kakati-Shah, CEO of Uma, believes that “resilience is the ability for leaders to maintain focus, stay calm and react quickly under pressure to sustain their companies’ goals, through turbulent times. An example is being able to pivot quickly and redirect company goals during the pandemic.”


Final thoughts: There’s nothing we can’t do together

While the above skills are deemed to be the most essential that any C-suite executive needs in this post-2020 world, business leaders need to be alert to the changing and complex nature of our world and respond accordingly. The most successful leaders are the ones that could inspire people to action in the face of uncertainty.

I’ll leave the last word to Christine McGuire, Director of Consulting. McGuire says, “If this last year has taught us anything, it’s the resiliency and positive attitude a leader has to have in order to be successful. In order to inspire, be convincing and move people to action you have to have a positive, optimistic outlook; one that approaches people and problems with a ‘can do’ attitude that there is nothing we can’t do or fix together.

Want to ensure you have what it takes to lead your people to success?

Browse hundreds of leadership training courses from the top providers in the country!

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Additional reading on the top skills to develop at different stages of your career:

About the author

Carol Pang is a Digital Content Editor for Prior to this, she has 12 years of experience in the corporate and financial sectors. 

She believes that people are fundamental to an organisation’s success, and that effective training can create a motivated and engaged workforce.

carol pang

Last updated: 20 Jan 2022

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