Here Are The Skills You Need To Become A C-Level Executive

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We know that different times and different circumstances call for different leadership skills. So when it comes to managing your own career, how do you prepare yourself to move up?What abilities should young would-be executives focus on developing as they choose companies, functions, and jobs? And what skills should working executives hone as they strive to reach the next level?

Those aren’t easy questions. The trends vary by function, geography, and industry—and, of course, by company. And though we can definitively identify the skills that companies seek now, pinpointing those that will be useful in the future is unavoidably speculative.

Nevertheless, in examining hundreds of executive profiles developed over the past decade or so by the executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles and interviewing numerous top managers about the requirements for senior leaders past, present, and future, we have seen some clear signals about how C-level jobs are evolving. (About the Research)

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One strikingly consistent finding: Once people reach the C-suite, technical and functional expertise matters less than leadership skills and a strong grasp of business fundamentals. Chief information officers need to know how to create business models; chief financial officers, how to develop risk management strategies; chief human resource officers, how to design a succession plan and a talent structure that will provide a competitive edge. In other words, the skills that help you climb to the top won’t suffice once you get there.

We’re beginning to see C-level executives who have more in common with their executive peers than they do with the people in the functions they run. And today members of senior management are expected not only to support the CEO on business strategies but also to offer their own insights and contribute to key decisions.

In this article we’ll explore this trend in more detail and explain other findings about skills required in each of seven C-level jobs—CIO, chief marketing and sales officer, CFO, general counsel, chief supply-chain-management officer, chief human resource officer, and CEO.

We’ll discuss the competencies that companies have sought over the past decade, those currently in demand, and those that, based on experience and early evidence, we expect to take precedence in the next decade. Our aim is to draw a road map of sorts for ambitious managers, to help them plot their next moves.

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This post originally appeared at Harvard Business Review.

The Chief Information Officer

The Chief Marketing and Sales Officer

For most of the 20th century, the sales and marketing functions had narrow business charters and operated as silos. The two functions also tended to concentrate on different areas: sales on the business-to-business realm and on managing direct salespeople; marketing on the business-to-consumer realm.

Marketing executives were almost exclusively responsible for creative, brand-driven advertising initiatives; sales executives were the proprietors of customer relationship management at the point of customer contact. Well-balanced, integrated marketing-and-sales organisations were rare; typically, one function had more power than the other.

At the turn of the millennium, marketing and sales still remained separate, but both began to broaden in scope as new channels emerged. Sales continued to overshadow marketing in B2B companies, but e-commerce initiatives forced sales leaders to grapple with some of the responsibilities that typically fell to marketing, such as how to deliver brand messages directly via the web. Demand for this expanded skill set gave rise to the VP of sales and marketing position, which became common in more and more companies.

A full decade later the lines between marketing and sales are continuing to blur. Trends like crowdsourcing are accelerating the innovation process, and social technologies, interactivity, and mobility have become integral to consumer media. Because marketing and sales must respond seamlessly to new opportunities, combined roles are increasingly prevalent.

The rise of a new role, chief commercial officer, reflects this shift. A 2009 Heidrick & Struggles study found that more than 200 CCOs had been appointed worldwide since the title first appeared a decade earlier; more than 50 of the appointments occurred in 2008 alone.

The creation of the position attests to the CEO's need for a single point of contact on the commercial side who can manage innovation, product development, marketing, and sales--across all platforms, both digital and bricks-and-mortar.

Technology--in particular, digital channels as touch points--will continue to dominate marketing and sales strategy in the future. The demand for segmentation capabilities will grow as firms address a more diverse population of customers who expect tailored products and solutions as well as higher levels of service. Marketing and sales executives will be managing a workforce that has grown up in the digital age and catering to a customer base that has an ever-increasing desire for speed and easy interaction.

The Chief Financial Officer

The General Counsel

The Chief Supply-Chain Management Officer

Two decades ago supply-chain management consisted of a handful of disciplines that were not systematically linked, and at the turn of the millennium that was still largely the case. However, as companies expanded internationally, separately handling the different aspects of SCM, such as purchasing and warehousing, started to become expensive and ineffective.

The challenge of cost reduction forced SCMOs to pursue strategic sourcing and to build collaborative relationships with suppliers. CEOs thus looked for SCMOs who knew how to achieve cost efficiencies and possessed operational and outsourcing expertise. But 10 years ago SCMOs still rarely reported directly to the CEO; the function was somewhat removed from the concerns of top management.

Since then the role of the SCMO has changed. Today supply-chain management links the process end to end: Planning, procurement, manufacturing/operations, and logistics work together to devise economical solutions. The SCMO is expected to know all four functions thoroughly and to create an environment in which they share knowledge and work together smoothly.

Sustainability is also rapidly becoming a business imperative for executives who manage this function. Companies are finding that they can create value by executing and sharing sustainability strategies throughout their supply chains, from suppliers to customers. That trend is driving managers toward increased transparency; the greater the collaboration across the supply chain, the more benefits the company discovers.

In the future SCMOs will continue to be expected to pursue low costs through ever more diverse sourcing, both onshore and off. They will need to manage long-distance logistics and transportation, taking into account unpredictable external factors that could have a major impact on costs, such as political instability or the price of oil. Because they will also partner with CIOs to invent new ways for their companies to interact with customers and suppliers, SCMOs will have to be technologically savvy.

Beyond all that, they will need to be big-picture thinkers who can participate in strategic and operational decisions at the highest level. Since SCMOs will be active and equal members of the executive team, experience in running a business unit, managing a P&L, and interacting with customers will serve them well.

As they meet the heady pace of change, companies will continually adjust their business models. In order to revise their supply practices accordingly, SCMOs will need experience in organizational design. International experience will grow more critical in the job, too, as global distribution becomes more commonplace and more competitive. SCMOs will need to understand emerging markets, which will often force them to embrace innovation. Distribution and logistics challenges in India, for example, are so complicated and challenging that ordinary solutions fall short there.

The Chief Human Resource Officer

The Chief Executive Officer

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