Why C-suite jobs require more than technical skills

Monday, August 30th, 2021 00:00 | By
Parliament in session. Photo/PD/File

Quresha Abdullahi

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

The House is discussing a slew of proposed amendments to the Kenya Roads Bill, 2021. One of the hot button 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 – KeNHA, KeRRA and 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.  

However, recent experience and studies have shown that leaders who rely solely on technical expertise in a particular field tend to get 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, 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 and the holder of that position should to lead technical teams to achieve the institution’s objectives.  

On its part, the Institution of Engineers of Kenya 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.

But this 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 review of road designs, preparation of BQs or even the development of tender documents?  

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

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

Drafters of the ‘Mwongozo Code of Governance’ 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”.

A scholar argued that technical skills and expertise may propel managers to the top of the organogram; but behavioral skills are what get them to higher levels of success and leadership.

There is no shortage of examples in Kenya where this has been demonstrated. 

Fernandes Barasa has been leading KETRACO as managing director through one of its most transformative phases, despite being an accountant and not having a degree in electrical engineering.

Rita Kavashe started out as a sales representative at General Motors, before rising to managing director and board chair at BAT. 

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

Kenya Airways would later appoint him to steer the loss-making national carrier as board chair. Joseph once said: “The ingredients I used to transform Safaricom are not the same as those needed to revamp KQ.

To be successful in a company you need people. While you can buy hardware, people and culture is the hardest thing to change”.  

The 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 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 equally critical.    — The writer is Executive Director Institute of Human Resource Management

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