Top 5 Soft Skills of a Strong Executive — Through a Pandemic and Beyond
Top 5 Soft Skills of a Strong Executive — Through a Pandemic and Beyond

I began writing this article before the pandemic, and it sat in a draft folder for weeks while we all struggled to navigate this new world. Like most industries, recruiting and job hunting are experiencing significant changes through these times, and we will continue to see more. I won’t pretend to foresee what those will be, but the current environment gave me a new perspective on what makes an executive successful, and what soft skills will rise in importance as a result of the pandemic.

I’ve been a recruiter for over 20 years, the last 13 of which have been exclusively at the executive level. But like everyone else, I’ve never seen anything like what we’re experiencing now, and all we can do is speculate according to the data we have right now.

It’s unlikely any of these traits will surprise you, but if you’re wondering if you’re executive material I’d like to highlight how I anticipate these five soft skills will directly affect executive hiring as the world shifts perspective.

1. Resilience

Resilience has always been an important executive trait, but it wasn’t originally going to make this list. In response to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, executive teams have had to figure out a way to protect the health of their organizations with little time to plan. Many had to make reductions in force to protect their organizations, and while that’s a horrible outcome, making the decision fast likely saved more jobs than were lost. Others, like Zillow CEO Rich Barton, had to embrace methods of doing business they had previously resisted, like allowing employees to work from home. 

The ability to register, and quickly respond to, both internal and external changes in circumstance can make or break a company. That resilience reflects back to your employees; Zillow found working from home to be such a popular and successful decision that they’ve decided to permanently revisit their work-from-home policy.

While a pandemic certainly highlights resilience, it’s a muscle all leaders must flex at some point. Resiliency is hard; it often means making unpopular decisions and taking risks, but successful leaders think beyond quarterly results or the fiscal year. They think about the big picture and understand that sometimes you must take a step back on your way to success.

2. Leadership

Leadership is a broad term, but in this case I’m referring specifically to leading people and, as a sub-category, empathy. Back in February, I probably would’ve left this one off the top five as well. But although this skill might seem obvious, it’s important to remind ourselves to remain empathetic while under intense pressure — something easier said than done, particularly if this skill doesn’t come naturally. While resilience may require you to disregard your feelings, people leadership requires personal connection. 

In good times and bad, employees look to executives for strong leadership, honest communication and an action plan that directly ties to their ability to make an impact. In times of crisis, such as a consolidation, company acquisition, or — you guessed it — pandemic, it’s up to leaders to provide a clear strategy and open communication to mitigate unwanted outcomes, such as the loss of high performers.

Providing the balance of what could be worrisome information with reassurance for the future, and compassion for the challenges employees are facing, strengthens loyalty and positions the organization for a strong return.

3. Creativity

For executives, creativity might be more recognizable as thinking outside the box. Again, I wouldn’t have thought of putting creativity on this list a couple of months ago, despite it being an essential and useful skill. I’ve traditionally thought of creativity as an industry-related skill; some industries are more inclined to make creative decisions than others. But I’ve been soundly corrected. Right now, everybody must get creative to keep their business afloat, and there’s some great leadership going on in this space right now. 

Restaurants, in particular, come to mind. With the industry under threat, I’ve seen many pivot fast to keep afloat. They’re partnering with delivery services and nonprofits to find partners who will purchase meals in bulk to deliver to hospitals and other essential service workers. They’re not just staying afloat but getting some serious marketing karma as well. 

Some manufacturers quickly shifted from producing their traditional products to manufacturing supplies for the pandemic, like masks and ventilators. As early as March, local distilleries were pivoting from making beer and vodka to producing hand sanitizer.

Even previous economic declines haven’t seen this kind of creativity out of companies. Waiting for a Paycheck Protection Plan loan or corporate bail-out just isn’t an option for everybody. 

4. Business Acumen

Any executive decision made in a bubble generally turns out to be a bad one. Decisions must be made communally among the executive team. One way to do this effectively is if everyone understands how their area of responsibility operates symbiotically with the rest of the organization. 

Here’s a pandemic-related example: An executive in charge decided to -restructure an organization in response to the pandemic without considering the employee resources needed or how the disruption would negatively impact their logistics function. In other words, she made a promise to mitigate outcomes without making sure her team could pull it off. You can guess how that worked out.

A strong executive surrounds themself with subject-matter experts who can weigh in on all company decisions and trusts the team’s expertise over their own judgment or instincts. Understanding how pulling one lever can have ripple effects throughout the company will allow you to contribute to broader executive-level decisions.

Attending an MBA program will help you think this way, but that isn’t the only way to learn. And even with an MBA, you aren’t going to shoot straight to the executive ranks without some practical experience.

As you navigate your career, seek out opportunities that allow you to work cross-functionally. Many corporations have rotation programs built around this idea, allowing high performers to spend six months to two years in various roles that enable them to develop skills in different areas. If your company or industry doesn’t have these formalized programs, actively seek out these opportunities and make it a point of discussion with your supervisor.

5. Influence

I would put influence on the list, pandemic or no. While it’s a learnable trait, influence might also come naturally and be called charisma or mindfulness. Successful executives understand that unilateral decisions will likely be met with resistance when it comes to getting teams on board. They also know not everybody thinks the way they do, and some are more open to opposing views than others. The talent is in bringing along even the naysayers.

So, executives tailor their approach to different personality types, and influence decisions through collaboration, building trust and understanding the motivations of those around them. For influence to be effective, an executive must empower and trust their team when they disagree instead of backing them into a corner. These behaviors earn trust in return, making collaboration more seamless even when there are strong disagreements.

However, don’t be dissuaded by the term “charisma,” which shouldn’t be confused with popularity or gregariousness. You don’t have to be an extrovert to be an influencer. Studies like the CEO Genome Project have shown introverts often make stronger executives because they are level-headed, good listeners, creative problem-solvers, make decisions quickly and leave their teams alone to execute. 

The pandemic has been tough for everybody, but it is temporary. Even if your career has been slightly derailed, if the executive track is your goal, keep these skills in mind. Actively identify opportunities to practice them. Now is a great time to invest in online training. Even if you decide an executive role isn’t your cup of tea, these skills will serve you tremendously wherever life takes you. 

Stay safe and stay healthy.

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Author Karen Bertiger

Karen Bertiger

Guest writer Karen Bertiger has two decades of recruiting experience across myriad industries, including finance and tech. She was a founding member of the internal executive search team at Amazon and is now a managing director at Seattle-based executive recruiting firm Herd Freed Hartz. 

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