Updated: July 21, 2022

13 Executive Skills & Competencies for Leaders in 2023

You found our list of top executive skills and competencies for leaders.

Executive skills and competencies are traits high-level leaders need to oversee organizations. For example, adaptability, decision making, and change management. The purpose of these qualifications is to identify professionals who would excel in upper management from the general workforce. These traits are also known as “senior leadership skills.”

Many of these traits overlap with leadership skills, HR skills and team management skills. Executives with these skills may show the signs of a good manager, good leadership qualities, and succeed at leadership exercises.

This post includes:

  • executive leadership skills
  • executive management skills
  • business executive skills
  • executive competencies
  • CEO qualifications and skills
  • senior leadership skills

Here we go!

Executive skills list

Here is a list of the most important skills for C-suite positions, founders, and company heads.

Executive Skills

1. Big Picture Thinking

The responsibility of an executive is to shape and guide the entire organization. CEOs and presidents must have an understanding of each individual area of the company, as well as how those parts fit and work together. Since executive-level decisions tend to affect the entire enterprise, every role within the C-suite must have a holistic view of the organization and consider the impacts on all departments when implementing change.

Beyond internal operations, executives must also be able to envision the organization’s relationship to the industry and market at large, and the global climate. Not to mention, high level leaders need not only consider the present, but also plan for 5, 10, 20 years down the road.

Narrow perspectives do not make for effective decision-making. It is absolutely essential for executives to have big picture thinking and be able to factor in many variables when analyzing situations.

2. Decision-Making

Researchers estimate that the average adult makes around 35,000 decisions per day. Chances are, executives skew on the higher end of that figure. Undoubtedly, the choices executives make are more high stakes and hold more weight than the typical on-the-job judgment call.

The choices that the C-suite makes have the farthest reaching and longest lasting consequences. Executives need the confidence to make important decisions, and the smarts to make them wisely.

High level leaders also need to have good judgment about the timing of choices. In an ideal world, leaders would have all relevant data before making a final call. In the real world, executives rarely have the luxury of perfect insight. Time is a factor in every decision. Waiting for a complete, detailed report on every possibility often means delays, missed opportunities, and ceding advantages to competitors. The best executives tend to act not when they possess all possible information, but when there is enough data to accurately project outcomes. Knowing when to wait for more info and when to move forward is one of the most important abilities for executives.

Also, it is important for company leaders to seek counsel on decisions. Contrary to popular belief, great executives are not alpha types who refuse to listen to advice and call the shots based entirely on their own opinions. Even the most egocentric icons, such as Steve Jobs, surrounded themselves with smart people and sought out expert advice. Having a sense of who to ask for answers and new angles is a critical step in the decision-making process for execs.

For tips on how to make high-level decisions, check out this list of business strategy books and decision-making books.

3. Strategic Forecasting

Beyond picking out the day’s outfit or ordering lunch, few executive decisions are without consequence for the rest of the organization. Executive actions do not occur in a vacuum, and the choices that these leaders make often have ripple effects. It is not enough for executives to consider decisions as singular events. The smarter approach is to treat options as interconnected and imagine the chain reactions that might follow.

Executives must also predict how conditions may change and affect agreements. Being able to project into the future and imagine how deals may play out is one of the key executive competencies. The ideal C-suite elite is like a chess master, never simply making one move at a time, but plotting out different versions of the game within their heads. This ability is one of the main qualities that set executives apart from average employees.

4. Impartiality

No professional begins in the boardroom. Even heirs often start within a certain department of the family company and work their way up to the top. While this process can breed work ethic, it can also narrow the scope and create a bias that needs to be shed to excel as an executive. An exec’s job is to make decisions that benefit the organization as a whole. High level leaders cannot favor a certain department based on their own experiences or preferences. Nor should leaders pamper a team they deem more valuable, as this can breed resentment and poor morale among the workforce.

Even more specific members of the C-Suite, for instance, CFOs and CTOs need to have the wellbeing of all teams in mind, and not just the folks they work with most. One of the least mentioned executive skills is the ability to put personal feelings and relationships aside and act on logic instead of loyalty.

5. Information Processing

In the age of the internet, the average person gets bombarded with information constantly. Executives are even more susceptible to large dumps of data. Upper management receives internal reports and communications, as well as industry insights, global and local news, expert opinions, not to mention social media and the online ecosphere. Great execs keep a pulse on conditions within and outside of the company. This information is often conflicting and quickly changing. The sheer volume of knowledge produced and presented every day can be overwhelming, and filtering intel through executive assistants can only go so far.

Executives need the ability to distinguish reliable references from dubious sources, as well as the judgment to know which pieces of knowledge are relevant and which are ignorable. High level leaders do not have the time to read through articles and reports all day, and must know how to quickly absorb the main points of the material. Speed-reading and summarizing are valuable skills for executives.

Having the ability to delegate research to team members who can present the information succinctly is also a helpful and efficient high level leader skill.

6. Negotiation

Negotiation is a critical skill for executives. Upper management positions often find themselves in rooms with professionals of the same stature. Internal and external executives have comparable levels of education, experience, and influence and who aim to achieve the best possible outcomes for their departments or organizations.

To broker deals, executives need to be masters at persuasion, compromise, and diplomacy.

Executives need to know when to concede and when to stay firm. These leaders must present their cases in manners that highlight the benefits of the agreement to the other party. When accepting terms outright may not be in the best interests of the company, savvy C-suite team members know how to offer creative alternatives.

Beyond negotiating with peers, executives need to know how to persuade their own people. For instance, retaining top talent within the organization, or convincing team members to be on board with the company mission or large-scale changes. The ability to influence opinions and coax agreement is thus one of the most essential C-suite competencies.

7. Cultural Awareness

In an interconnected world, an executive may only be one ill-advised tweet or smartphone photo away from causing a scandal. Behaviors or statements that were acceptable years ago may now be taboo, and it is important for executives to keep tabs on shifting cultural norms to avoid seeming tone deaf for alienating customers.

Also, keeping a pulse on trends and paradigm shifts helps executives run modern, progressive organizations that keep up with the times. For instance, by adopting employee wellness initiatives, responding to demands for more diverse and inclusive workplaces, and opting for more authentic and relatable advertising over peddling polished fantasies. Knowing how the target audience feels about issues helps executives make decisions that benefit customers, team members, and the brand.

In an increasingly global economy, it is important for higher management to not only understand the rules of their own country’s society, but also have an awareness of other culture’s norms. This knowledge is especially important when companies expand internationally, as consumer behaviors and widespread beliefs can differ greatly from nation to nation and region to region. Miscalculating culture’s impact on business can lead to wasted time, effort, and money, as well as possible reputation damage.

8. Stress Management

Stress management is one of the most important upper management skills. Being an executive is a high-pressure job, and it is important for high level leaders to know how to handle stressful situations. Employees look to leaders for social cues and assurance. Showing extreme emotion can cause the workforce to panic, which in turn causes more problems for executives to solve. Not to mention, unregulated emotions might register as weakness to competitors or the general public.

On a more personal note, prolonged stress can cause issues like burnout, cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety, back pain, and a slew of similar health problems. Plus, these negative emotions can cause leaders to lose passion and drive.

Simply suppressing the stress is not a long term solution. Instead, executives need to process the sensation in healthy ways. Positive habits like exercise, meditation, nutritious diets, and regular relaxation can equip execs to tackle challenges. Practicing coping mechanisms like counting backwards from ten, deep breathing, and pausing before reacting can also be helpful and effective. Staying calm in the face of adversity gives executives an advantage and a headstart to solving problems.

High level leaders cannot control every circumstance. Crises, downturns, disappointments, and conflicts are inevitable, especially in the modern business climate. It is crucial for executives to be able to endure obstacles and show composure in the midst of crises. Since challenges are unlikely to stop, it is important that leaders are ready to handle the pressure.

9. Change Management

The C-suite is responsible for large-scale organizational shifts, and its members need well-developed change management skills. The fate of an organization often depends not only on what changes are made, but rather by how those changes are made. Great leaders can get buy-in from stakeholders and transform concerns into confidence. These upper managers know how to allocate resources and build the proper scaffolding to make a smooth transition. Savvy executives know when and how to announce the change to employees, clients, and the media. They put training and new procedures into place well ahead of launch time, and make staff feel supported throughout the process.

For more information check out this list of books on change management.

10. Adaptability

In an age of industry disruption, fierce competition, and ever-shifting global environment, the C-suite needs to be more nimble than ever. Modern executives must lead through challenges like global health crises, cultural revolutions, natural disasters, and technological shifts. The companies that outlast the chaos are the ones willing to innovate and evolve. The willingness and ability to pivot are often crucial in the quick-moving business landscape. Great leaders are willing to abandon what worked in the past and, “the way things have always been done,” in favor of strategies most likely to produce favorable results in the now. These execs tailor their vision to the world instead of trying to bend the world to fit their vision.

Higher management should also be flexible on an individual level. Much of the executive job description revolves around putting out fires. Daily plans can easily be derailed by unexpected developments and urgent issues. High level leaders need to ensure that critical work gets done even when their energy and attention get pulled in opposite directions.

11. Interpersonal Skills

One cannot descend to the level of C-suite without possessing people skills. Rising to the top of a company is not just about technical competence, but also about relationships. Executives are the face of an organization and must know how to present themselves well and win approval from the masses. Upper managers come into contact with powerful stakeholders like key clients, investors, board members, regulatory parties, and the media, not to mention high-level employees. To achieve the business’ goals, it is important for executives to know how to impress and get along with a wide range of personalities.

This skill is not merely a matter of charm and charisma, but also about building and maintaining positive working relationships.

12. Presenting

According to a study published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, the average executive spends around 23 hours per week in meetings. A significant portion of that time is spent presenting. Executives often give presentations to board members, stakeholders, the media, and the public.

Presenters need to know the format that will be most appropriate for the audience. For instance, complex topics may benefit from figures and demonstrations,

while data-driven meetings may be more effective if each attendee has access to a printed report.

Speaking skills are vital, as is the ability to distill ideas down into main points without omitting too much information. When presenting, executives should be confident without being cocky, persuasive without being pushy. Storytelling takes skill that involves reading the audience, figuring out what listeners want to hear, and making the crowd care about the message. While practicing and preparation can help with delivery, presenters also need to be good improv artists and react to questions, comments, and concerns in real time without getting flustered. Many folks judge an executive’s competence by performance in presentations.

13. Team Building

Since a large part of modern work revolves around collaboration, teamwork abilities are desirable for all members of an organization. However, team building skills are important for executives for a different reason.

A company’s culture flows from the top down, and executives choose the other team members at the top. The best leaders fill their closest teams with smart, talented, and driven employees who embody and exemplify the company’s core values. Smart executives do not surround themselves with yes men, but hand-pick individuals who are not afraid to disagree and speak up in the best interests of the company.

At the same time, it is important to have a level of harmony among higher leaders. Company heads need to be able to encourage teamwork and settle conflict among the executive teams for any hope of synergy among the rest of the organization. Fostering a spirit of cooperation among upper leaders sets the tone for the rest of the staff.

Check out the full list of team building skills.

Final Thoughts

The laundry list of skills for successful C-suite executives is extensive. There are many qualifications needed to run successful enterprises, which is why the job search for executives tends to be longer than the average recruitment cycle. High level leaders need to be at the top of their fields, be knowledgeable, have an arsenal of skills and experience, along with many other criteria. The entries on this list are not the definitive list of requirements, but merely the traits that distinguish high level leaders from the average employee.

Note that it is important for executives to have the foundations of these skills and abilities, however, presidents and chiefs do not need to be perfect. Learning is a constant process, even for execs. C-suite candidates do not need to be masters of these skills. A willingness to work on and develop these competencies can take a leader far in the quest to be successful.

Next, check out this list of executive team building ideas and this list of books for CEOs.

We also have a guide to good leadership.

FAQ: Executive skills

Here are answers to common questions about executive skills.

What are C-suite skills?

C-suite skills are abilities that professionals need to be effective executives. For example, adaptability and large-scale decision making. These abilities distinguish high level leaders from average workers and help executives navigate the high stakes and high-pressure circumstances of running a company.

What skills do executives need to succeed?

The skills executives need to succeed and lead thriving organizations include cultural awareness, strategic forecasting, interpersonal skills, and active listening.

What are the most important skills for executives?

The most important skills for executives include big picture thinking, negotiation, stress management, and information processing.

How do you improve your executive skills?

One of the best ways to improve executive skills is to seek out a high-level mentor who can coach you on the traits you most need to develop to attain and excel in a position in the C-Suite. Other methods of improvement include reading executive books and blogs and taking leadership training courses. You can also gain first hand experience by taking on more responsibilities and higher level projects within your current role, or starting and leading committees and clubs within your organization.

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Marketing Coordinator at teambuilding.com.
Team building content expert. Angela has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and worked as a community manager with Yelp to plan events for businesses.

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