The Science Behind C-suite Success: Your CxOs Need This Skill

Leadership StrategiesLeadershipExecutive Search
min Article
September 01, 2022
5 min
Leadership StrategiesLeadershipExecutive Search
Executive Summary
The requirements of a high-performing CxO have fundamentally shifted—it’s time for a new approach.


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At a time when everything is uncertain, one thing is true: Our world is changing, and it’s changing fast. For CEOs, this presents new—and unprecedented—challenges. Business-as-usual will not cut it anymore. The day job has become much more complex and nuanced. And that means that the people you surround yourself with matter more than ever before.

Recent macro events are forcing CEOs to rethink what it means to be a great C-suite executive. The leadership qualities that worked in the past are unlikely to be relevant in the future. What helped someone make it to the executive team a decade ago, may not help them stay there in the decade ahead.

Indeed, research shows that a worrying 66% of CEOs don’t think their C-suite is fit for the challenges of the next decade. That matters. Without the right people on the top team, who are working together in the right way, CEOs will struggle to make high-impact decisions in real time, leading to stakeholder backlash, drift, and competitive decline.

So, how can you make a confident decision about your next CxO? What does it take to lead successfully in an unstable world? And what specific skills should you look out for? Here, we provide some answers.



Most leaders still think of CxOs as functional or regional/category experts. But, as the world shifts on its axis, the definitions of what it means to be a successful executive must also shift.

The five ways the CxO role is changing today.

The Individual Shift. The best CxOs are not only high-performing individuals who focus on their individual P&L goals and KPIs. They are also high-performing team players, who work with their peers to push the entire organization toward its strategic vision.

The Expertise Shift. It is no longer just about subject expertise. CxOs must also show behavioral agility. They must be able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, be unafraid to wade into new terrain, and work with others to find a new path forward.

The Results Shift. CxOs need to deliver more than discrete results. They must fuel enterprise-wide success. That includes helping the organization stay ahead of the latest business challenges, whether that’s sustainability, digital transformation, or diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The Legacy Shift. It is not just about building the right executive team today. You also need to build your bench of CxOs for tomorrow. Every CxO must play a proactive role in helping to identify and develop the rising stars across your organization who will help secure long-term business performance.

The Culture Shift. Leadership teams must not only adapt but foster diversity and drive cultural change. Your CxOs need to understand—and actively embrace—their role as torchbearers for the organization’s purpose, values, and culture.



With these changes, the path to CxO performance is becoming more challenging. To adapt, functional leaders must find opportunities to develop beyond their domain expertise and become more enterprise-focused, digitally savvy, sustainability-minded, and team orientated. Adopting a faster, more agile way of approaching problems will also be key, as will the ability to work across silos to innovate and execute solutions on the fly.

This is new territory for many CxOs. And they must learn these skills while also facing investor pressures, geopolitical disruption, board influence, and increased C-suite turnover. The job is by no means easy.

For CEOs, that makes it even harder to find the CxOs you need to secure long-term performance. But there is a specific trait to look out for that will help you identify those who are up to the challenge, and thereby de-risk the process of C-suite hires and promotions.


The ability to flex

Through our work at Russell Reynolds Associates, we know that the most successful CxOs can flex their approach—bringing different skills to the fore, depending on the specific situation they face. They embody both ‘loud’ and ‘quiet’ competencies. They show both rational and emotional intelligence. And they are able to handle contradictory, sometimes conflicting, ideas simultaneously.

It is this paradoxical expression of personality (and the resulting agility) that sets the most successful leaders apart. These traits are not at odds with each other; they happily coexist. And they give leaders the much-needed dexterity to navigate an uncertain, and fast-moving world. As each new situation arises, executives understand exactly which behaviors they need to draw on to find a way forward.

Through empirically validated research, we found the most effective C-suite leaders typically “span” four dualities:

Being both disruptive and pragmatic. Great leaders know when to disrupt the status quo with innovation, and when to be pragmatic about focus, priorities, and the pace of transformation.

Being both risk-taking and reluctant. Great leaders know when to take calculated risks and be opportunistic, and when to show vigilance before steering the organization off a cliff.

Being both heroic and vulnerable. Great leaders are heroic, but they are also vulnerable, knowing how to ensure perseverance and grit don’t turn into self-delusions. They take feedback and external data to heart and make continuous improvements to themselves and their organizations.

Being both galvanizing and connecting. Great leaders galvanize support with energy and inspiration, but they also know when to take a step back, share credit, and promote the success of others. They can connect the organization to become something stronger and greater than themselves and the cult of their own personality.

Ultimately, every organization will have its own requirements for what they need from their CxOs, now and in the future. But from our work with leading companies around the world, we know that assessing whether a leader possesses the agility to flex between these four paradoxical traits is a strong indicator of whether they will thrive in the C-suite.

So, when you’re looking for your next CxO—whether for your top team today or tomorrow—think about whether they have the behavioral agility to flex their approach. It will be the critical differentiator between top team performance and demise.





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