Even in the Digital Age, Leaders say People Skills are More Important

CEOs are telling children interested in following in their footsteps that "soft" skills are far more important than tech skills.

CEOs may be growing increasingly concerned about finding successors familiar with the latest technical gadgetry. But when asked about the kind of advice they’d offer their own offspring, should they ever wish to follow in their footsteps, it appears that having a way with people remains a more valued quality.

Technological advancements and innovations were indeed selected by more than 300 executives questioned by Russell Reynolds as factors that would most significantly impact the way people work in the future. Artificial intelligence and robotics also scored highly in this regard.

To be sure, when respondents—88% of whom were parents—were asked what competencies their children and grandchildren would most need to succeed, being proficient in the latest technology was mentioned by just 9%. Ranking highest was the ability to make decisions and solve problems, at 18%, think creatively, at 16%, and communicate verbally with people inside and outside the organization, at 15%.

“Meaningful work that will ‘do good’ in the world is the new competitive advantage for companies, especially when it comes to attracting, retaining and inspiring future business leaders.”

Of course, soft skills and technical skills aren’t always mutually exclusive. Leaders in the digital age may, for example, have to make decisions faster to track the pace of innovation, based on vast volumes of data.

“As technology continues to disrupt the workplace in the coming years, one thing is certain: ‘soft’ skills will be even more important for future leaders to be successful,” Russell Reynolds’ Jenna Fisher said.

Separate research has confirmed that CEOs are nevertheless anxious about finding successors who can get that skills balance right, with more than 550 recently interviewed by the Conference Board selecting “developing next generation leaders” as their biggest concern behind a potential global recession.

A skills shortage more generally is being compounded by demographic shifts in labor markets that’s shrinking the size of talent pools across the globe. To compete, this latest survey suggests companies may want to emphasize their purpose to job candidates, rather than the size of their pay offering.

Creating a purpose-driven organization was ranked by 19% of executives as the most appealing future workplace, while 44% said doing meaningful work and making a difference was the leading motivating factor in their own careers, followed by supporting their families, at 28%.

“Meaningful work that will ‘do good’ in the world is the new competitive advantage for companies, especially when it comes to attracting, retaining and inspiring future business leaders,” Fisher said.

And if given a second chance, would today’s CEOs do it all again? The answer was a moderately convincing “yes”, with 72% of respondents saying they’d choose the same career path if they could go back in time. Some 86% said they were satisfied with their overall careers and 65% said they’d encourage their child or grandchild to follow in their footsteps.


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