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Research by the Mullwood Partnership investigated how, where, and why the role of the CEO differs from five years ago.

What skills do we value in today’s leaders? A significant transformation of the role of the modern CEO has made true leadership dependent on breadth of experience, and an ability to handle external relations. 

Today's – and tomorrow's – leaders have to struggle with expectations that are changing faster than ever, according to a research paper by the Mullwood Partnership. The paper explains how, where and why the role of the CEO differs from five years ago.

CEOs today must be more flexible and agile, equally adept at team-building and individual coaching as at setting strategy, and need organisations that are primed to embrace innovation and creativity, the report found. Stakeholders have higher expectations, and market conditions have become increasingly complex and unpredictable. Public scrutiny of business has intensified, with corporate leaders expected to demonstrate strong personal and professional values.

The research was conducted by Jo Sellwood-Taylor and Sharon Mullen, founders of Mullwood Partnership, in partnership with Dr Sukanya Sen Gupta, associate professor at Warwick Business School. Speaking to Real Business, Sellwood-Taylor and Mullen explained that greater transparency and expectations are putting new pressures on CEOs, who need to balance short and longer term challenges.

“Everything is amplified, speedier, accelerated and there is a lot more personal risks and expectations involved,” said Sellwood-Taylor. ”There are more expectations of a CEO to be a better leader than they ever were; and having the best team than they ever had is massive.”

Leadership skill doesn't just involve know-how and business sense – integrity, people skills, and the ability to build the best team possible, as well as being able to embrace innovation, technology, and creativity is the new leader's main responsibility.

“We are looking for people who will lead business in an authentic way, with integrity,” says Mullen. “It's less about making profit and revenue now - its about doing it in the right way.

“Business leaders need to be powerful, and address global issues, which can come from business leaders, not only government and politics. I think people will look to CEOs to drive some change.”

The research identified six core skills or areas of experience for the modern CEO role. They are, in order of importance:

  • People leadership;
  • Breadth of experience;
  • External relations;
  • Track record of managing change;
  • In-depth technical knowledge of market and sector; and
  • Detailed understanding of the business.

Notably, 43 per cent of CEOs rate people leadership above all others in terms of importance.

Despite these key changes to the role, the majority of CEOs come from a finance background, rather than a profession based on people leadership skills, such as HR. Sellwood-Taylor and Mullen explain that specific experience, rather than the functional background is what makes a great leader.

“People take much comfort of leaders from a finance background, as they tend to speak the language of the business and get closer to the board – certainly to stakeholders. They know the numbers very well,” says Mullen.

Moving on at such a pace of change we need the best and brightest leaders to guide us through. What makes a great leader? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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