In today's business world, it's going to take more than just technical expertise for aspiring executives to reach the C-suite.
A March Harvard Business Review article titled “The New Path to the C-suite” asserts that “soft skills,” such as leadership ability, cross-cultural competence and interpersonal expertise, are now essential for managers looking to climb the corporate ladder. The article pinpoints a balanced skill set as being critical to career advancement.
“C-level jobs are more demanding than they've ever been,” says Boris Groysberg, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, who co-authored the article. “You have to be able to do more; you have to have business skills, business acumen and a global IQ.”
The article, which examines the evolving roles of seven executive-level positions, including chief human resources officer, states that HR managers are no different.
“We are a knowledge-based economy where a company's biggest asset is its human capital,” Groysberg says. “Organizations are looking at talent more closely and want to manage HR as an asset.”
To efficiently leverage HR, forward-thinking companies are increasingly filling the HR officer position with candidates from nontraditional backgrounds, according to the article. Indeed, organizations are looking toward business functions, like operations or marketing, to recruit their HR managers. These executives of the future bring an understanding of commercial models as well as change management experience to the position. With these assets, the chief human resource officer, for instance, can serve as a key adviser to the board, build compensation and performance into government structures, and bring valuable commercial and technological acumen to the role.
The authors also stress that, as globalization continues to shape the world economy, top HR professionals will need to become more culturally and internationally astute.
“You have a huge demand for individuals who not only have technical and functional expertise, but also a grasp of the cultural world in which we live today,” says L. Kevin Kelly, a co-author of the piece who is CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, the global leadership advisory firm that collaborated with Harvard Business School on the study. “You need the ability to maneuver and work through many different cultures, not just corporate but also country-specific cultures.”
Engaging a diverse workforce will become evermore important as U.S. companies continue to expand in emerging markets abroad. Even domestically, facilitating smooth communication between workers of different generations and different cultural backgrounds is a fresh challenge for HR managers. With this in mind, experience of working in different regions and different environments is becoming an invaluable attribute for the chief human resources officer position.
“You have to maintain technical skills and abilities,” Groysberg says. “But if you can grow and develop soft skills to go along with them, then that could be a real recipe for success.”
James Walsh is Workforce Management's editorial intern. To comment, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.