How to Assess Soft Skills in the C-Suite

CEO and executives talking during a meeting

How to Assess Soft Skills in the C-Suite

In life sciences, the value of soft skills goes far beyond simply being able to get your point across. Knowing how to assess soft skills in the recruitment phase is essential to a successful process.

In the c-suite, the ability to listen, empathize, and communicate with individuals from any department is key to any leader’s success as it encourages the kind of loyalty, respect, and transparency that are the hallmarks of any high-functioning team.

But, even if your candidate is speaking the words, how do you really know that they can walk the walk? Knowing how to assess soft skills during the recruitment phase is crucial, but you can’t absolutely rely on their CV for confirmation. First, you will need to do a bit of discovery. Then, you will have to put some of their claims to the test to find out where they really stand.

Four executive soft skills and how to assess them

Some soft skills are easy to ascertain, and some are more elusive. Let’s look at a few of the top soft skills we seek in today’s life sciences leaders and how we assess them:

Soft skill #1: Communication

Communication is a multi-faceted skill as it involves give-and-take on two different levels: verbal and written. A candidate’s cover letter should be a good initial indication of how well they communicate on paper. If it is error-free, clearly written, and there are no spelling or grammar mistakes, this is at least a good initial assessment.

Verbal communication can be assessed through direct conversations as you find out more about who they are and how they see themselves. Well-spoken statements that make their point concisely are positive, especially if your questions are framed to elicit an out-of-the-box response.

Do they listen to your question first, or do they interrupt before you’ve finished? Did they take the time to understand the question completely? And finally, did they actually answer the question you asked?

The ability to present ideas to large groups of people is often very much a part of an executive position. For these candidates, you might ask them to give you an ad hoc presentation on a topic of their choosing during one of your meetings. This will tell you several things: how they respond to the unexpected, how well they can communicate their thoughts, and how quickly they can adapt their demeanor to meet the challenge.

Soft skill #2: Collaboration

Collaboration and teamwork are essential in life sciences. No matter what department your candidate is being considered for, teamwork is the foundation of success from the c-suite to the OR.

Ask the candidate to describe a collaborative situation and its results. Ask them to talk through a scenario in which better collaboration would have improved the result. Were they able to turn things around? And if so, how did they accomplish it? Ask for specifics, and find out how they personally felt about the situation and what could have been done differently to achieve an improved outcome.

Soft skill #3: Integrity

Integrity, honesty, transparency — these are all highly desirable leadership traits, and especially important when dealing with investors, shareholders, or the public. In recent years, we have seen many cases of executives losing their way, giving in to a sense of entitlement or engaging in unethical practices that serve few but themselves.

To lead from a place of integrity requires ongoing self-evaluation and, often, the courage to seek counsel from outside of their own organization to be sure they fully grasp all the implications. This is especially important in times of economic challenge when information that comes from the CFO might only be a part of the puzzle.

Integrity is difficult to assess simply by asking questions. It may be more valuable to have a clear picture of the candidate’s background and to ask them about specific scenarios to understand how well they perform under pressure. What they do and what they say when their back is against the wall says a great deal about their character. As a leader’s ability to influence others is what will ultimately take them to the top, those who they lead must have absolute confidence in them. Integrity is essential in order to realize this goal.

Soft skill #4: the capacity to learn

Many highly skilled individuals, executives and clinicians alike, may allow their status, power, influence, or money to dictate their behavior. Once they have arrived in the c-suite, many don’t feel like there is anything left to learn.

Many incredibly smart people invest too much time and effort into simply being smart. Many would prefer to spend their time proving their validity to others instead of challenging themselves to grow and evolve. When a person sees themselves this way, they may believe that there is nothing left to learn despite what they say to the contrary. After all, it would seem pretty arrogant to come across this way, and most of them are at least smart enough to know this.

In assessing the capacity to learn, look beyond the words and make particular note of the activities the candidate is actively involved in for the purpose of furthering his or her learning goals.

While these are just a few of the soft skills that your candidates should be evaluated for, the key takeaway is that actions always speak louder than words. An executive recruiter can play a significant role in helping to assess these qualities in tomorrow’s leaders. Call or request a quote today.


What Establishes Talent in a C-Suite Recruit?

An executive director doing some paperwork while standing in the office.

Placing the right leadership for your organization can mean the difference between simply operating and making a significant difference in the lives of the people you serve. Executive talent is never easy to find, but in the Life Sciences space, it is even more of a challenge due to high burnout and turnover rates.

An individual may excel in a clinical setting, but may not be cut out to lead at the c-suite level. In theory, they may seem like the perfect fit–they know your people and the issues you face on a daily basis, they understand the mission and objectives, but they may lack the key qualities we look for in our executive leaders. For a high-level placement to succeed, the fit needs to be just right for your culture and your clinical focus, but how do you quantify this and what are the marks they need to hit?

Cultural Fit

Your choice of a Chief Financial Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Medical Officer, or any other c-level position is legacy-creating. The right or the wrong person can impact your business operations and reputation for years to come. For this reason, choosing the right person for the job is absolutely crucial.

Having a great cultural fit is a small part of the bigger picture, but it may be the most important. While it may be hard to define, a cultural misfit will be easy to determine. The basis of culture is found in the alignment of beliefs and behaviors to the company’s values and mission.

Your leaders, while they may not be in the trenches with the clinicians and practitioners, need to have a deep understanding of what motivates the team. They should also be able to implement changes in such a way that it does not disrupt a functioning culture and they should also be able to introduce new ideas and methodologies successfully, fostering an atmosphere of respect and confidence among the rest of the team.

Ask yourself this: what qualities does my company culture possess that need to be reflected and supported in its leadership? Innovation, efficiency, customer service, and communication are all highly desirable traits. Technology and learning could also play an important role in shaping your culture. If you can describe your culture, alignment with these traits should be a prerequisite.

Experience and Background

Experience is important, but what kind of experience is the most important? Is it more important to hire experienced executives for executive positions, or is it preferable to hire physicians with no executive experience? do you hire internally, or conduct your search externally?

The answers are as complex as the question and what works for one organization may not work for another.

While Candidate A may have a long history of executive experience, but they may not be as sensitive to your objectives and they may not have the vision required to advance your mission. They have successfully driven myriad organizations to improved financial and operational outcomes, but they don’t fully understand your clinical focus.

Candidate B may be a physician who has displayed excellent leadership qualities and who already has a relationship with your clinical team. In this case, it may be a good cultural fit, but they may be too mission-driven, or too focused on improving a single aspect of your services to provide thought leadership in the organizational realm.

Either of these candidates has potential, but if you had to choose one, which would it be? Further investigation is necessary.

We might agree that they both share some key characteristics:

  • Integrity
  • Empathy
  • Vision
  • Optimism
  • Curiosity
  • Management experience

Beyond these, their must-have skills should include:

They have the ability to motivate. Top leaders need to be able to ask the hard questions and push for change when and where it’s needed. They should be able to motivate others to take up their cause and see it through to its fruition.

They are relationship-focused. Obtaining results in a healthcare setting begins with trust. The only way to get physicians, clinical leaders, and nurses on the front lines to be open is to establish trust through open communication. If a leader comes from another industry, this is even more difficult as there will be a perception that they don’t really understand what the issues are. A relationship-focused leader will transcend these barriers to bridge the gap.

They have operational experience. Having a background that includes organizational transformation is very desirable in a leader. Knowing what may impede progress is an important part of knowing how to avoid them. A good leader will foresee these issues and steer the organization away from them.

They should be respectful of how far you’ve already come. Beware the leader who seeks to establish change right away. The ability to take a step back and observe processes is important, as even if they are flawed, there may be a rationale as to why things are the way they are. A confident leader will realize that it takes time to understand the complexities of the operation and will learn as much as he or she can before implementing any sweeping changes.

Finding your next healthcare executive doesn’t have to be painful. If you are interested in speaking to one of our Life Sciences headhunters about your recruiting needs, call Pact and Partners today.