The essential skills every CEO should look for in their C-suite executives
Building a great team of C-suite executives is at the heart of a CEO’s job.
“It’s one of the hardest and most rewarding things you do,” says Vistage member Larry Weiss, president and founder of Weiss Advisors LLC. “There’s so much that comes into play. Chemistry, skill sets, culture — they all have to come together.”
Seasoned and first-time C-suite executives must hire people who can carry their vision into reality. When hiring a new executive team, this becomes less about technical skills and more about soft skills, such as leadership and communication.
Weiss, whose leadership experience includes president, CFO, controller, director of operations, director of business development, as well as board member, said that CEOs must find a team of individuals who can carry out their vision and mission while also maintaining great relationships with their team, the CEO and other employees.
Vistage asked Weiss and Nora Paller — a former CEO of a family-owned company and a Vistage Master Chair with more than 17,000 hours coaching CEOs of midsize businesses — about the skills necessary for these key C-suite roles.
Chief Financial Officer (CFO) responsibilities
The role of the CFO has changed greatly in the past few decades, Weiss said. CFO was once a technical role focused on reporting, numbers, and budgets. Now, CFOs must be more creative, strategic and communicative.
CFOs must still know the technical details, but it’s important for CEOs to find reliable CFOs who can see new opportunities and become great leaders themselves.
Although CFOs often make budgetary recommendations, Weiss said that they must work well with other departments. Weiss likes to work with CFOs who give credit rather than taking credit, as well those who use influence rather than authority.
Paller puts it simply: CFOs need to be able to communicate, not dictate.
But Paller said that some companies may need a controller rather than a CFO. Controllers ensure the numbers are correct, while CFOs dig into questions such as “How can we grow?” and “What’s not profitable?”
Chief Operating Officer (COO) responsibilities
The COO oversees day-to-day administrative and operational functions. Weiss said that COOs should relate well to the CEO — they don’t need to agree about everything, but the COO should complement the CEO’s skills.
COOs must know analytics, Weiss said, and be driven by metrics and KPIs. But they have to be comfortable making decisions and recommendations with incomplete, still-forming pictures of what is happening.
Paller said that a great COO is good at executing, at turning strategy into operations. “A great COO makes things happen,” she said. “And they can motivate people to work together as a team.”
Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) skills
Weiss’s biggest hiring mistake came from hiring a bad HR leader. They didn’t listen or relate well to the team or to potential hires, a problem for someone who interacts with so many people.
From this experience, Weiss said he learned that the right person for the role is someone with deep experience with hiring, recruiting and training people — and who must be trusted by the entire executive team to represent the company.
According to Harvard Business Review, CEOs name human capital as a top challenge, and yet many CEOs do not rank their HR leader as a top key position.
A chief human resources officer can cover vast terrain — training, compliance, hiring and discipline. But most companies can’t afford everything. Paller suggests that companies focus on the “people” aspect of HR, including hiring and recruiting.
Chief Information Officer (CIO) responsibilities
The CIO manages and implements new technology. Paller said that CIOs must stay up-to-date with a range of topics, continue learning about new technology, and translate what matters most for the team.
CIOs will often need to outsource aspects of the company’s technology infrastructure, Paller said. Outsourcing can save time and resources, but CIOs must still manage these outsourced teams and must be adept at collaborating with remote teams.
In addition, CIOs need to understand how to spot a good technology or outsourcing opportunity versus a bad one. If a company is outsourcing its data security, for example, is the firm they’re outsourcing to going to truly be able to protect the data?
Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) responsibilities
The CMO is the C-suite position that has changed the most in the past decade. Marketing used to be creative and difficult to quantify, but advancements in technology and analytics have allowed CMOs to show the effects of their work.
A good CMO understands the company’s strategy, knows how to get the company’s work seen, and can show with data and analytics that their work makes an impact. This is still a creative position, but CMOs must now be more technically aware.
Weiss said that CMOs should also be able to educate the rest of the company about the organization’s market and product strategy. Like every C-suite position, he believes that CMOs should be willing and able to stand up in front of the room and make a presentation.
What do C-suite executives need from a CEO?
When Weiss worked as CFO at a previous organization, he had a chief executive of the kind he wanted to become.
Weiss learned a lot about this CEO’s strength as a leader in a moment of conflict, when the CEO had an idea that Weiss and the company’s CMO believed to be a bad one. The CEO became frustrated with Weiss and the CMO, who disagreed about most things but agreed about this idea. The chairman of the company told the CEO that it was rare for Weiss and the CMO to agree on anything, so the CEO should listen. The CEO grew angered and left. He came back the next day, ready to listen.
Weiss remembers what the CEO said when he returned: “I’ve calmed down. Explain to me again why you think this is a bad idea. And we can’t leave this room until I understand.”
The CEO was invested in this idea, but eventually agreed to let it go.
“For a CEO, respectful conflict is good within the C-suite,” Weiss said. “If everybody agrees all the time, we’ve got a problem. I want people to speak up and to challenge each other, but to do it respectfully and politely.”
For this reason, it’s important for a CEO to have emotional intelligence and be willing to listen. They should be supportive of employees and willing to hear feedback. Paller said that CEOs should have a vision of where they want to go, be willing to take risks and make choices, and be willing to learn from mistakes.
It’s also important for CEOs to ditch their egos. “Some of the best CEOs don’t have big egos,” Paller said. “Every day they go to work, they’re moving towards something. That’s who I’d want to work for.”
Each role in the C-suite requires its own unique set of hard and soft skills. Every leader will bring something different to the mix. Whether you’re an experienced or first-time CEO it is important to consider how the C-level leader you’re bringing on board complements your own set of skills. This will ensure your company’s executive leadership team is well-rounded and provides the diverse perspectives you’ll need to take the business where you envision it should go.