Lean Times Call for New Leadership Traits

High on the list are adaptability, humility, and telling it like it is, leadership experts say.

Many finance executives are well used to taking calls from executive recruiters and working with them to land that next job. But they may not have much experience with another service that most of the big search firms offer: leadership-assessment consulting. Unless, that is, the CEO or board of directors singled them out to be assessed.

While much of their work involves evaluating CEOs, leadership consultants can offer insightful perspective to anyone in the C-suite. On March 9 at its annual meeting, the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC) invited top consultants from the four largest firms in the field to explain how the concept of leadership is evolving during turbulent economic times. An edited transcript follows.

Peter Felix, president, AESC: Do companies today have a changing view of what they are looking for in business leaders?

Cathy Anterasian, head of executive-assessment services for the Americas, Spencer Stuart: It’s much more complex now. Leaders have to deal with greater ambiguity, uncertainty, and incomplete information. Being able to frame novel problems in meaningful ways, to look at them from different angles and not be too wedded to one point of view, is crucial.

Also, the goal for a leader now is to be tough but still beloved. It is important to be able to hold people accountable to goals and aspirations. That tough love can make a leader endearing.

A final point has to do with humility — that it’s not about “my way or the highway,” but rather empowering people to feel that their ideas are welcomed, listened to, and incorporated into the leader’s thinking. With all the corporate scandals out there, you can’t be a holier-than-thou kind of leader anymore. You have to be humble to earn respect. And the next generation of talent coming up the ranks expects leaders to be more personal, personable, and real. The days of the command-and-control leader are over.

Ana Dutra, CEO, leadership and talent consulting, Korn/Ferry: I would add to that list the ability to communicate key messages and expectations very clearly. The old leadership style of saying what people wanted to hear no longer applies. Second, even for companies whose business is not global, a global perspective is extremely important, because whatever is happening with global competitors is going to affect you as well.

Rick Greene, Americas regional managing partner for leadership consulting, Heidrick & Struggles: I do a good amount of work in industries that are distressed right now, like banking and home building. Particularly in those hard-hit sectors, there’s a greater need for adaptability. For example, we just helped a client exit a longtime executive who, if you looked at his track record and shareholder value created, you’d think there would be no way he’d ever leave the company. But with the challenges its industry is facing, he was not presenting the needed level of adaptive thinking.

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