Here’s what it takes to be a CEO, according to somebody who gets them hired

Odgers Berndtson's Rob Quinn tells the Financial Post about what qualities make a student 'CEO material'.

By: Cody Gault

Rob Quinn says he can spot a future CEO before she has landed her first job. As a Toronto-based partner at Odgers Berndtson, an executive search firm, he has come to believe that leadership is less about expertise than curiosity; less about experience than vision; and less about relaying orders than relating to people.

“With a student, those skills are not going to be as well developed,” concedes Mr. Quinn. “But that potential, if honed, is going to deliver results — no question about it.”

Perhaps in part to prove his point, Mr. Quinn helped found CEO for a Day. The program matches Canada’s “best and brightest” students, as he calls them, with leading Canadian CEOs, ranging from GE Canada’s Elyse Allan to Lululemon’s Laurent Potdevin. The idea is for executives to get acquainted with the next generation of business leaders and for students to get a sense of what leadership is all about.

Here’s how it works: Odgers solicits applications from university students across the country, screens them, conducts in-person interviews, tasks candidates with problems to solve and puts them through the same psychometric testing they use to match executives with businesses. Those who pass muster go on to shadow a chief executive for a day.

What sorts of skills and traits is Odgers looking for? The long version: Superb written and verbal communication skills, curiosity, critical thinking, a worldly perspective, motivation, self-awareness and the ability to collaborate. The short version: “A lot of soft skills for connecting with others.”

Mr. Quinn is referring to the all-but-lost art of generalism. The generalist’s skill is rooted less in a particular discipline than in people. She is a quick study but frequently relies on the expertise of others. Her talent is connecting with people and connecting ideas, considering problems and solutions from every possible angle and cutting through the nuances that often entangle the specialist.

Critically, the generalist is born, not made. You cannot turn somebody who is not innately curious and empathetic into somebody who is. (Or, if you can, the window for that transformation appears to close for most people before university, let alone the workplace.) By the same token, however, possessing the makings of a leader is not enough: Those skills must be, to use Mr. Quinn’s word, honed.

And therein lies a challenge facing the modern economy. Our labour market’s currency is expertise and experience, when once malleability was often enough to get in and get ahead. This increasing demand to rack up hard skills leaves workers with little time to develop the soft stuff from which a leader is made.

This is not to suggest that a specialist cannot be a generalist, or vice versa. Most successful generalists made their bones as specialists — chief executives are, after all, drawn from the ranks of the workforce. The issue is that hard skills are what get workers in the door and to the middle, and they tend to be hard-won at the expense of breadth.

For example, technical proficiency is often what gets an engineer into a managerial role, but being better than one’s peers at engineering says little about one’s ability to communicate effectively. Likewise, while superb communication goes a long way in marketing, it means little when it comes to developing sound strategy.

People who do manage to hone soft skills in concert with hard skills bring tremendous value to the modern economy. This perhaps explains the growing popularity of executive MBA programs, or EMBAs. With less emphasis on ‘roundness’ at the bottom and the middle of organizations but increasing demand for it at the top, more workers are looking outside the workplace for opportunities to develop and demonstrate their ability to lead.

Unlike conventional MBA programs, which tend to cater to people in their mid-20s and those looking for a shortcut onto the fast track, EMBAs attract people in their mid-to-late 30s whose hard skills have already taken them as far as they’re going to. As such, the mandate of an EMBA program is less about teaching students to be leaders than sensitizing them to what leadership is all about. The distinction may seem subtle, but it’s the difference between being told what a leader does and doing what a leader does.

The programs tend to be rigorous, convening on weekends over the course of 12 months or two years, and are often pursued by students with full-time jobs and young families. Adding to the burden is the sticker price: If you’re set on attending one of the Canadian schools that cracked the Financial Times’s top 100 global ranking this year, be prepared to part with somewhere between $64,500 and $129,000, unless your employer is willing to foot tuition.

But until businesses place greater emphasis on honing leadership skills within their own ranks, EMBAs are likely to retain appeal for those who strive for a seat at the boardroom table. And, hey, there are worse fates than going back to school, right?