Why C-suit jobs require more than technical skill

Skills like risk mitigation, strategic communication, innovation, and emotional intelligence are critical. [Courtesy]

As Kenyans recently debated the Court of Appeal ruling on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), an interesting argument was raging in the National Assembly.

The house is currently discussing a slew of proposed amendments to the Kenya Roads Bill, 2021.

One of the hot issues is a proposal to amend a provision in the Kenya Roads Act, 2007 requiring the chief executive officers (CEOs) of the road sector agencies – Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA), Kenya Rural Roads Authority (KeRRA) and Kenya Urban Roads Authority (KURA) to be holders of at least a degree in civil engineering.

 In their submissions to Parliament, certain professional bodies have taken the unusual stance that the role of “management, development, rehabilitation and maintenance of respective road networks” does not require civil engineering expertise.

Traditionally, and in Kenya, people perceive leaders with technical expertise as more professional, credible and successful.

Performance motivation

However, recent experiences and studies have shown that leaders who rely solely on technical expertise in a particular field tend to be caught up in the details instead of thinking strategically and holistically to build a culture of performance motivation and inspiring teams to achieve the vision of the organisation.     

The Institute of Human Resource Management (IHRM), Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya (ICPAK) and the Kenya Institute of Supplies Management (KISM) among other bodies, postulated that a CEO’s job, regardless of industry, is more strategic than technical.

The holder of such a position, they noted should be able to lead technical teams to achieve the objectives of the institution.

However, the Institution of Engineers of Kenya (IEK) argued that the road sector CEOs should be experts in civil engineering to avoid being misguided on technical matters such as road design, preparation of bills of quantity and budgets, among others.

This, however, begs the question: What exactly, is the day-to-day role of a CEO?

Does a CEO at KeNHA, KeRRA or KURA get involved in an operational scope like the review of road designs, preparation of bills of quantity or even the development of tender documents?

The CEO’s key responsibilities are decision-making, ensuring performance, motivating teams, communication, and stakeholder engagement and building momentum to achieve an organisation’s strategic corporate goals.

In today’s changing business environment, effective leaders will be those who can identify the technical skills required and ensure that they are surrounded by experts needed to actualise the organisation’s long-term success.

The drafters of the Mwongozo Code of Governance, which is the final authority on this matter, envisaged the role of CEOs of public institutions as “responsible for overseeing the execution of the board’s directions and policies to ensure desirable outcomes.”  

In his book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, Marshall Goldsmith argues that technical skills and expertise may propel managers to the top of the organogram; but behavioural skills are what gets them to higher levels of success and leadership.

There is no shortage of examples in the Kenyan corporate scene where this has been demonstrated. Mr Fernandes Barasa has been leading the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company as a managing director through one of its most transformative phases, despite being an accountant and not having a degree in electrical engineering.

Rita Kavashe started as a sales representative at vehicle assembler General Motors, before rising to her current position of managing director and board chair at cigarette manufacturer BAT.

Safaricom’s pioneer CEO, Michael Joseph has been credited with transforming the telco from an obscure department within Telkom Kenya to the most profitable company in East and Central Africa.

Leadership style

Kenya Airways would later appoint Mr Joseph to steer the loss-making national carrier as chairman. While being interviewed on his leadership style, Mr Joseph said: “The ingredients I used to transform Safaricom are not the same as those needed to revamp Kenya Airways. To be successful in a company, you need people. While you can buy hardware, people and culture is the hardest thing to change.’’

Kenya’s roads sector has witnessed unprecedented growth in road development and improved maintenance over the last 15 years. Undoubtedly, engineers have excelled as captains in the road sector, but this success cannot be attributed to their qualifications in highway engineering only. 

 While professional bodies are expected to pitch for their members, they should train them beyond technical skills, and equip them for corporate leadership.

Skills like risk mitigation, strategic communication, innovation, emotional intelligence and the ability to inspire and motivate workers to achieve the desired corporate goals are critical.