Researchers from Imperial College London, Cornell University and Harvard University analyzed job descriptions for top executives over a time period of 17 years from 2000 to 2017. Their analysis shows that social skills are gaining more and more relevance compared to “traditional” management skills.

The researchers used methods that are typically also used in machine learning algorithms to analyze how C-suite job descriptions (e.g. for CEOs, CFOs, CIOs) have changed over time. The data was provided by a globally active headhunting firm and consisted of the job descriptions from 4,622 searches conducted by 3,794 different firms.

Six skills clusters for top executives emerged from the research:

  • Skills related to monitoring organizational performance
  • Information processing and analytic reasoning skills
  • Financial and material resources management skills (managing the organization’s resources and operations)
  • Skills related to conducting administrative tasks
  • Human resource management skills
  • Social skills

The increasing importance of social skills

As the researchers note in their paper, social skills were primarily related to “the ability to establish empathy, persuade and listen to others” (p. 3). It is one of the main outcomes of the research that social skills have become much more important over time in executive searches. The “social skills cluster” even doubled in size over the research period.

Although the demand for different types of skills still varies from firm to firm, the researchers clearly noticed a general trend that social skills have become increasingly important. They conclude that “the capability to interact, persuade and more generally relate to others” is gaining higher relevance “relative to more traditional operational and administrative capabilities” (p. 38).

Key takeaway for smart leaders

  • If you would like to become a successful top executive, develop your social skills – especially the ability to listen well, understand what others feel and need, and persuade others.
Research reference: This blogpost is based on the findings of the following research study: Hansen, Stephen and Sadun, Raffaella and Ramdas, Tejas and Fuller, Joseph, The Demand for Executive Skills (2021). Available at SSRN: or 

Illustration: © Eva Kobin

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