What motivates leaders to join one kind of organization, and avoid another? What are their deeper criteria for career decisions? What sources are they using to ‘audit’ potential employers, and what are their attitudes to the use of AI in the hiring process? What factors are fueling executive departures and how have recent global events affected their confidence in making a career move?
To find out, we personally approached senior executives from across the world who had recently been shortlisted for a senior position with a hiring organization. As such, they were in a reflective and ‘organization-assessing’ state of mind. The study followed a central hypothesis: that their needs are profoundly changing.
Our market interactions indicate that career aspirations are being re-shaped by two main factors:
1 – The desire to experience and practice wise leadership.
Wise leadership is ethical, responsible and sustainable, even if this may mean some loss of short-term gain. A shift is underway from smart and reasonable leadership, that purely focuses on immediate economics, to holistic leadership that emphasizes ESG criteria.
2 – The desire to have greater control over their own destiny.
They seek this ‘agency’ even if it means some loss of predictability and security. The emphasis is shifting from highly engineered organizational structures to more self-organizing, fluid ecosystems that are collaborative and trust-based.
We theorized that these factors are no longer ‘nice to have’s’ for senior executives; they are becoming fundamental selection criteria. Were we right? If anything, we under-estimated their importance. They are becoming non-negotiables to a degree that surprised us.
Go to the Full Report
Measuring what really matters to senior executives now | 4 areas of investigation
01 – NEEDS: What do senior executives deeply want from organizations? What profile of organization are they actively seeking or avoiding?
02 - APPROACH TO THE HIRING PROCESS: How are senior interview candidates examining hiring organizations? What do they really think of AI hiring tools?
03 - DEPARTURE REASONS: What is causing senior executives to leave their organizations?
04 - CONFIDENCE IN CHANGING ORGANIZATIONS: How are global developments affecting senior executive confidence in making a move? A business barometer and diagnostic tool
A global population of senior executives
443 senior executives from all world regions completed our confidential survey, 84% of whom were in employment. Of their (current or most recent) organizations, 49% were listed and 73% had offices in more than one country. 71% reported their position (current or most recent) as C-suite level or above. 70% had been in work for 21 years or more. We did not approach candidates who were subsequently hired by the client organization commissioning the search. The respondents represented a wide spread of organizations and sectors. 73% of the organizations represented had offices in more than one country, 57% had over 1000 employees. Multiple sectors were represented.
A diagnostic tool | what our study offers
Keys for hiring organizations
- Design a strong value proposition for a demanding talent market; one whose confidence in changing organizations is resisting the uncertainties of Covid
- Map and consolidate burning points of candidate attraction
- Address potential problem areas
- Design strategies to attract Leaders For What’s Next from the global talent pool
- Identify potential competitors for the talent you seek today.
Keys for candidates
- Create the conditions to design an enriching next career step, based on what really matters to you
- Identify your ‘must-haves’ and ‘nice-to-haves’
- Identify the profiles of organizations most likely to fit you: culture, market position and demographics
- Build your case for a successful hire
- Identify information sources prior to interview.
Our study confirms that the shape of senior executive careers is indeed changing. Executives seek ethical, responsible and sustainable leadership. They want greater control over their destiny and a more fluid working environment, even if this means losing some short-term gain, predictability and security.
However, hiring organizations must now strike a careful balance in order to attract and retain outstanding senior talent. Wise, reflective leadership must be coupled with dynamism and momentum. Self-organization and fluidity still require a degree of underlying engineering and stability.
Our study sounds alarm bells for boards and talent strategists alike.
Only a quarter of respondents told us that the Covid pandemic had significantly reduced their confidence in changing organizations. So the talent market is both demanding and mobile. What about organizations who don’t offer the right conditions?
Of particular concern are firms that neglect the support of senior executives, assuming that they no longer need to learn or grow or should be solely responsible for their wellbeing. Equally vulnerable are organizations that commit ethical errors, relying on past success (or innovating in the pure spirit of ’moving fast and breaking things’.)
The ‘up or out’ career model is also losing ground; an organic career route is more interesting to senior executives than a rigid upward trajectory. Many also want the freedom to work for several organizations at once.
Growth via mergers and acquisition is reducing attractiveness and failure to grow at all is a serious handicap.
Ownership type is an attraction factor and certain profiles of organization may struggle. And whilst globalization is still a powerful hiring magnet, large legacy players are no longer automatically top of the list for senior candidates.
Putting the cards on your table: What if your organization has one or more problem areas when it comes to talent attraction or retention? Or if, as a senior executive, you want to re-position yourself? We invite you to use this survey to diagnose not only areas of weakness, but attraction points. As an organization, you can use our findings to design a compelling talent value proposition. And as a candidate, you can draw on the findings to propose an equally compelling response.
4 Topline Findings
1 - Senior executives are demanding dynamic wise leadership, even at the expense of short-term gain. They are actively seeking organizations that emphasize ethical, responsible and sustainable decision-making. Our report presents the characteristics which will take organizations to the top of the list when it comes to senior talent attraction. From a clear purpose and a robust ESG strategy, to diversity of thought, compassion and involvement, these factors are extremely important to senior executives. And they far outweigh their opposites (such as an emphasis on unity of thought, competitiveness, speed and financial value)
2 - Senior executives want control over their destiny, even at the expense of predictability and security. They are attracted to organizations that give them control over their own lives, and financial skin in a game that they can influence. Our survey highlights the tensions that hiring organizations must resolve in a number of key areas: career routes, contractual freedom, learning, compensation, work/life balance and remote working. And whilst global organizations have the edge, heavy legacy players are not necessarily the most attractive at the present time. Younger, more agile competitors are gaining ground in senior talent attraction
3 - Senior executives' need for freedom should not be confused with a tolerance for neglect. As Covid physically disperses people, even senior leaders strongly expect support from the top, our report finds. They want to co-engineer how and when they work and co-decide about their work/life balance, even if this means sharing what they think and do about it. Nor should hiring organizations assume that senior executives no longer need or want executive education: lifelong learning is very much in demand
4 - Firms that fail to deliver will pay a high price in senior talent attraction and retention. Organizations that commit ethical errors, are unable to stay ahead via controlled innovation, or seek growth via merger and acquisition will be actively avoided by a large number of senior executives. Even in this year’s uncertain economic climate, most are surprisingly confident about changing organizations. And they are using multiple channels to audit a potential employer when in line for an interview, many outside of the control of the organization. Finally, interviewing should remain a human process, they warn. It should not be conducted by an AI, even if many executives now trust AI to perform simpler interventions.
For all the findings and data, go to the Full Report
Executives want more control over their own destiny – even in the current economic climate
- Support, growth and professional freedom are important to more senior executives (80%) than compensation or remuneration
- Linear upward career routes are losing attractiveness. They are giving way to semi-structured, sideways moves, underpinned by executive learning. Even if 40% of senior executives still want the traditional one track, upward career path, the strong trend is towards a semi-structured approach, sought by 73%. And 79% actively seek organizations that give them their own learning budget. 73% would avoid firms that neither expect them to follow any programs, nor provide finance
- A significant number of senior executives now want to work for more than one organization at once: if 51% still want the classic ‘locked-in’ contract, almost as many (45%) actively seek more freedom
- Despite the economic insecurity of Covid, the entrepreneurial spirit is strong: 63% of senior executives want a major part of their compensation to be linked to organizational performance (which 90% want to influence).
Executives are in search of a wiser professional environment
From a clear purpose and a robust ESG strategy, to diversity of thought, compassion and involvement, these prove to be extremely important to senior executives. And they far outweigh their opposites (such as an emphasis on unity of thought, competitiveness, speed and financial value).
- A higher purpose is critical: 86% of senior executives say that when they’re deciding whether to join an organization, its purpose, mission and vision are highly important. Ethical reputation in particular is key for 89%, and 74% are looking for an ESG strategy.
- Asked to pick the 3 most important areas in making a career decision, the organization’s purpose still ranks highest, (closely followed by remuneration and work-life balance). And whilst 91% would actively seek an organization with a clean ethical reputation, 84% would actively avoid a firm that had suffered a serious reputational fallout
- Diversity of thought is more important than unity: 79% actively seek organizations that emphasize diversity over unity of thought. Only 5% would avoid organizations that emphasise diversity over unity
- Compassion is more important than competitiveness: 47% actively seek organizations that emphasize compassion over competitiveness – three times as many as would avoid organizations that emphasise compassion over competitiveness (15%)
- Stakeholder involvement is more important than speed: 44% actively seek organizations that emphasize involvement over speed – twice as many as would avoid organizations that would emphasize involvement over speed (20%)
For all the findings and data, go to the Full Report
Diversity of thought
“Underpinning these findings, in my view, is the central importance of diversity of thought,” says Annika Farin, Global Chair of Amrop. “Leading thinker Manfred Kets de Vries* recently warned that many of today’s celebrated companies risk turning into corporate cults, recruiting and functioning on the basis of ‘fit’ and tending towards group-think. Our study reinforces his warning: diversity of thought is a non-negotiable for senior talent. As leadership advisory consultants, we have the core task to support our clients and candidates in the quest for difference. For this is the key to self-questioning, innovation and vitality. Ultimately, it is the catalyst for sustainable growth.”
New Leadership Traits Moving Forward
Annika Farin continues: “In the same vein, the findings in this report confirm my belief that a series of leadership traits are now moving center stage, enriching the traditional skillset and opening organizations to the different and new.
Empathy, service, humility and deep thinking. The imagination to envision a future state. Taking a long-term perspective and exercising perseverance and resilience en route to What’s Next. Our findings confirm that senior executives want to join organizations that embody these traits. As the leader of a hiring organization, could your organization be one of them? As a senior candidate, could you be one of those leaders?
7 Leading Questions for Boards and C-suite Executives
Our survey surfaces a number of critical questions to ask yourself as a Board or C-suite executive. Here is our selection. You can find more questions in the Full Report.
How fluid and adaptive is our organization? 80% of senior executives seek growth and freedom. To what extent are such factors built into your organizational architecture, purpose and values? How well does your board communicate, implement and exemplify these factors?
- What is our ethical state of health? 94% will likely be examining their alignment with your organization’s ethical values and principles, and reputational errors will dissuade 84% (no matter how powerful your firm). What checks and balances are installed to identify ethical blind spots, especially given remote working and financial pressure? If you are taking remedial action, what reassurance are you prepared to communicate to senior candidates?
- How active and consistent is our support to senior executives? 90% of senior executives are demanding the support of top management and many defect, absent this. How regularly and constructively do you engage with senior executives, (beyond checking KPIs)? How do you support them in learning from errors or making the case for investment in their zone of responsibility? What senior coaching and mentoring are available, especially during onboarding?
- How diverse are we, in reality? In decision-making, 79% of senior executives want diversity of thought to be emphasized over unity of thought. How is diversity integrated into your board composition, interaction and agendas ? How is it reflected in board hires, behavioral principles, and time allocated to inclusive exchanges with executives? How does your board react to and process input from new entrants?
- What would a wisdom check reveal about us? Compassion, involvement, societal and environmental values should be emphasized over their opposites, senior executives warn. Do your board members and top management exemplify these increasingly vital indicators, and ensure they are consistently anchored within the organization?
- Do we still have a learning organization? Many organizations have de-prioritized senior executive learning due to Covid. Yet 73% of executives will avoid organizations who fail to provide it. What plans are underway to re-install learning investment? How to link its themes to the ‘new normal’ post-Covid, (evolving leadership behaviors and digital transformation, for example?)
- Exploitation or exploration? What is our position? 78% of senior executives seek a mix of exploitation and exploration, when it comes to innovation. Controlled innovation that fuels growth (versus unstable disruption) is critical to senior talent attraction. How well does your organization ensure that these perspectives are balanced in the organization? For example, by engineering zones of controlled experimentation?
Leading questions for talent strategists and senior candidates
Are you a talent strategist or a senior executive looking for your next career step? You can find specific leading questions in the Full Report.
The report sends a number of clear signals to organizations seeking to attract (and retain) senior talent. The focus of top executives is shifting towards a professional life that gives them greater control over their destiny, working in organizations with a more holistic approach to doing business. We warmly invite you to a dialogue to discuss the learnings of our study and potential outcomes for your board and talent management strategy. To set up a call or request a proposal for executive search, leadership or board services, please contact us direct or go here to find a consultant close to you. We look forward to our next exchange!