Seven skills needed for tomorrow's CEO

Suzanne Snowden- photo Author: Suzanne Snowden, Director, Global Thought Leadership

As the New Year unfolds, I can’t help thinking about the challenging environment business leaders around the world are facing in 2015. Crude oil has fallen by more than 50% over the last few months.  Market prospects in key geographies have ebbed and flowed from positive to negative - with Japan, Greece, Brazil and Russia amongst the most unpredictable investment markets.  And risks on the horizon seem to be increasing.  These are just a few examples of the volatility we’ve seen over the past few months.

If you’re like me - and took a short break to spend time with family over the winter holiday - you may also have been surprised at just how much can change in the world within a few days (especially when you consider the surreal cyber attacks that took place on media companies).  The business outlook, when I got back to the office, felt like an entirely new ball-game!

This acceleration in the speed of change makes me to wonder just how business leaders keep up with the changing geopolitical outlook, fickle consumer preferences, new risks and new competitors? Leaders of successful businesses in 2015 are going to need a ‘Super CEO’ at the helm!

In our forthcoming Annual Global CEO Survey, we asked CEOs what capabilities tomorrow’s leaders will need to succeed in this evolving business environment. According to their responses, the CEO of tomorrow will need to possess the following skills:

1. An ability to see around corners - a number of CEOs mentioned the need to identify trends early (avoiding temporary hype) and stay ahead of the fast-moving competitive landscape.

2. Tolerance for ambiguity - many said tomorrow’s  leaders need a constant readiness for changing business dynamics and an ability to work towards unclear goals and outcomes.

3. Agility in decision-making - being flexible-minded and a curious life-long learner who’s open to testing and measuring new ways of doing things was the message from many others.

4. Adaptability in execution - the most often-mentioned response was adaptability – the power to  drive near-constant renewal inside their organisation.

5. At ease with technology - CEOs told us that technology plays an important role -  both as an accelerator of change, and as the key tool at their disposal to remain agile, to adapt to changing circumstances, and to stay close to consumers and influencers.

6. Surrounded by a great team - CEOs must have talented staff in place to compete in the marketplace. The ability to attract great people was one aspect, but being able to cultivate a positive culture with a happy workforce, centred around trust with staff, was also key. One respondent felt that, “A CEO must always surround himself with people better than him.”

The seventh capability was a bit of a surprise and mentioned by a good number of CEOs from across geographies and sectors - and that was ‘humility’. The CEOs naming this capability said it was important to maintain a modest opinion of your own importance and be open to listening and learning from all that’s happening in the global environment. And, of course, humility highlights the importance of CEOs knowing the limits of their own 'superpowers'.

I think Denise Ramos, Chief Executive Officer and President of ITT Corporation, sums up the challenge for today’s leaders rather nicely in this video clip:



Not an easy task for any one individual…

So, we’ve heard from our CEOs, but we’d also love to hear from you. What skills do you think tomorrow’s leaders need to be successful? Share your thoughts in the 'comments' section below – or join the discussion on Twitter using #CEOSurvey. You can also follow the conversation on PwC's pages on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.

Welcome to the challenges of 2015!


Suzanne is Programme Director for PwC's Annual Global CEO Survey and Global Director of Thought Leadership at PwC. She has a passion for scanning the horizon for the latest trends and issues which impact global business and pilots PwC's network of thought leaders engaging in the creation, development and presentation of PwC's research and insights.


CEO Insights - seven skills imageOur 18th Annual Global CEO Survey, which launches on the 20th January 2015, will reveal more about the capabilities that CEOs are using to compete in a volatile competitive environment. Sign up here to join the webcast of the live launch of the survey from the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos.



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Knowing "exactly what to do" as a leader gives way to openness, curiosity and flexibility as change and complexity come to dominate the lives of leaders.

This is a great set of skills. To describe them in skills that are “trainable”, I would say:

• Active listening – helps with decision-making, humility, and developing a great team
• Managing conflict – helps in dealing with ambiguity, decision-making, and developing a great team
• Decision-making – obviously helps with decision-making, but also with developing a great team – by harnessing their collective wisdom
• Strategic Thinking – enables leaders to see around corners – and in developing a great team to help them see around the corners
• Empowering their followers – helps in humility, execution, technology, and developing a great team
• Building Teams – enables execution, dealing with ambiguity, and developing a great team.

The future requires great leadership and leaders require great skills. The skills you listed describe a collaborative leader as well – not one who is in command and control mode, but one who can harness the power and wisdom of everyone in the organization.

Hi, Suzanne,

Great post! If I may share some thoughts as well, based on what you have shared:

"Super CEO": Does he still exist?Many say no. I say all CEOs are super, or they had better be. CEOs need to be people akin to decathlon athletes. Might not be the best any particular event, but they had better be very good at all of them!

1. An ability to see around corners: How do you do that? I can think of two ways. One, you use a periscope, i.e., technology. Two, you have to both stand back far enough to see the patterns in the environment you're interested in, and you need to get up close and personal looking around those corners and walking around the area.

2. Tolerance for ambiguity: Has anyone ever operated in a crystal-clear environment? I don't know of any, do you? What is needed is a clear raison d'etre, clear business outcomes and the gumption to both recognize that there are many ways of skinning a cat and then actually doing it when it becomes necessary.

3. Agility in decision-making: For this, at least two things are needed. One, overwhelming intellectual firepower. Two, rock-solid, manifested core values. Without these, you are not going to have agility in decision-making.

4. Adaptability in execution: You need to be doing your basics right. Wind sprints are extremely important. Do them every day. Staying robust and nimble is a choice.

5. At ease with technology: Amazing how many CEOs claim that they are "too old" for technology. If you're too old for technology, you're too old to be CEO. Technology is an enhancer, a multiplier. You are being irresponsible if you don't use technology.

6. Surrounded by a great team: That is the CEO's responsibility, not the HR and not the recruiter. I also think we need to be clear as to what we mean when we say “A CEO must always surround himself with people better than him.” Yes, and do remember that you are CEO because you are the best person for the post! Earlier reference to decathlon athlete applies.

The seventh capability - humility: True humility is not about being self-effacing. It is recognizing both your strengths and weaknesses, helping others and getting help yourself. It is serving your stakeholder's interests the best you can, not serving your own selfish ambition.

My thoughts. Cheers!

There is still one missing...

But first on #7...

Humbleness it the trait of humility which bestows respect (which in turn bestows honor)... There are a LOT of leaders who know how to DEMAND respect but the true leader knows how to COMMAND respect -- the former requires and outward focus on the leader while latter requires in inward focus by the leader...

So what is missing?


Anyone can be doing any or all of the 7 listed but without a high level of discernment there would be questions of where is everyone going? who is everyone following?

We all know wise 7 year-old's as well 70 year-old fools -- age has nothing to do with discernment but our choices and how we choose to think does...

Discernment cannot be taught, it is caught -- caught from those you we follow, caught from those whose voice we listen to, caught from those whose counsel see seek, even caught from those we consider our hero...

If you know the sources of those 3 of anyone, you know more about the person than the person may want you to know -- or they may want you to know more of who they are...

Great post and I love the "see around corners" skill we call this the ability to anticipate and are working on a program for CPAs and management accountants to develop this skill. I think I would add the one missing skill is the ability to inspire others toward the vision (or visions) for the future.

Thanks for the inspiration!


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