Attraction: C-Suite Leaders Identify the Most In-Demand and Elusive Skills

Experience Alone isn’t Enough for a Future Leader

Human Capital Strategies of C-Suite Executives: The Future of Food & Ag, Part 1 of 3

Given the challenges ahead, C-suite leaders tell us experience alone isn’t enough to ensure a senior executive can effectively guide an organization over the next three to five years and beyond. Just as important, they say, is strong self-awareness, strategic, long-term thinking, and a focus on results. Today’s executives are not only being hired for what they have accomplished, but more crucially, for their potential to impact the future of an organization. In fact, while experience may get senior leaders and executives an interview, many other factors are required to drive an organization’s growth.

Cultural fit integral to human capital strategy

Cultural fit is a recurring theme for C-suite leaders – it’s integral to every aspect of human capital strategy. A candidate’s commitment to their company’s purpose, mission, and culture is a top consideration in attracting and recruiting high-quality, talented executives. They also believe that a compelling mission for the organization and a strong culture is also what keeps talented senior executives engaged in their jobs.

“For me, cultural fit is the biggest thing,” said Robert Hodgen, CEO of King Ranch, a major agribusiness based in Texas, with operations in Florida and California.

“We obviously look at their basic skills for the role and whether they have the experience to do the job—but that’s table stakes compared to their ability to fit within the organization’s culture. We are also focused on their innate personality: are they naturally wired to be successful with the role?

Robert Hodgen, King Ranch

A fair, market-rate compensation is important, these leaders agree, but it is not the decisive factor in recruitment in today’s changing talent landscape. Workplace culture and work-life balance are just as — if not more— critical.

“Candidates have to believe before they can belong,” said Ed Yuhas, Kincannon & Reed Managing Partner. “That means organizations need to do a good job of branding their purpose and culture. They don’t have to be the highest-paying employer, but they must treat people really well—and that begins with the recruitment process.”

Yuhas is convinced a healthy culture will remain a decisive factor in recruitment for years to come.


For survey respondents and interviewees, diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) is a key factor in human capital strategy.

Some 77% of survey respondents say DE&I is of growing importance in executive talent recruitment and engagement, although leaders approach it differently. Not only does more diversity make his executive team stronger, King Ranch’s Hodgen said it’s a growing expectation from stakeholders including employees, customers and shareholders.

Kim Nicholson, VP of Ag Technology and innovation at The Mosaic company, is focused on identifying talent pools where there is greater diversity, like their recent partnership with a Historically Black College & University (HBCU) to tap into diverse talent.3

With DE&I becoming a day-to-day business priority, these C-suiters said they are looking for leaders who encourage open and intentional conversations around diversity and who will proactively identify and address organizational shortcomings in DE&I so that everyone feels a sense of belonging.

Find more insights on fostering a diverse workforce here.

3 Mosaic Donates $100K to FAMU School of Business and Industry, HBCU News, February 10, 2022

Wanted: Authentic leaders with emotional intelligence

The ability to lead is another top consideration in attracting the right senior executives.

“When we look to the future, we want to be sure they understand the importance of building talent, so we’re trying to tease out their experience in growing talent,” explains Lisa Escudero, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at Phibro Animal Health. “They also need the confidence to be willing to delegate, and not think they have to do everything themselves.”

Humility is the word that Victor Ochoa, CEO of Granjas Carroll, a leading Mexican pork producer and processor, uses to describe the quality he seeks in senior executives. He paraphrases a Spanish poem: “It is not important to arrive first and alone. It is important to arrive on time and with everybody.”

The ability to admit to a mistake is prized by Ochoa and other interviewees. “I want people with valuable experience who aren’t afraid to share that they have learned from their mistakes. If they’re telling me that they have never made a mistake, then they have either never made a decision, or they have a terrible memory, or they’re lying. As far as I know, I’m not interviewing God. I’m interviewing a human and human beings make mistakes.”

Empathy and emotional intelligence are highly desirable qualities in attracting the right candidate.

For 74% of Kincannon & Reed’s most recent placed executives, emotional intelligence and empathy are the most sought-after qualities in executive leaders today.

As one survey respondent noted, “The primary motivator for people is trust. People will see you acting on integrity and truth.” Another says, “Emotional intelligence is essential to true leadership.”

The C-suite leaders we interviewed agree: they want leaders who are genuine, compassionate and great communicators.

“We put much more emphasis on qualities like compassion and empathy – even more than we did just one or two years ago. The pandemic, the war in Europe and other factors have put leadership in a completely different context today,” says Jonas Berndtsson, Global HR Director for AAK, producer of plant-based specialty ingredients.

While both interviewees and survey respondents prioritize emotional intelligence, they acknowledged it is a difficult quality to assess when interviewing candidates. Similarly, the ability to collaborate is not easy to gauge.

Kim Nicholson, VP of Ag Technology and Innovation at The Mosaic Company, the world’s leading integrated producer of concentrated phosphate and potash, explained, “We need leaders who are comfortable managing global teams, who can adapt culturally, and are flexible with the way that people carry out their work in different parts of the world.”

Kincannon & Reed’s Yuhas agrees: “With the mind-boggling pace of change, qualities like strategic agility and adaptability are important; a leader needs to know when to pivot and how to fast fail. These qualities are hard to assess, which is why we work with clients using behavioral- based interviewing and other evaluation tools to identify individuals who are authentic and have learned from their failures.”

Elusive skills

When it comes to the skills that are the toughest to recruit for at the senior leadership level, C-suite leaders have differing views, depending on their organization’s specific growth needs, its niche in the food/ag sector, and the type of company (established firm vs. start-up, etc).

Some seek senior executives with a varied set of skills who are not too narrowly focused in one specialization. Too often, Hodgen says, candidates are “an inch wide and a mile deep, when their new executive role requires leading a team and not acting as a technical expert within a given discipline.”

For Naveen Sikka, CEO of Terviva, a company combining agroforestry and the production of sustainable food ingredients, entrepreneurialism is the hardest skill to assess in a candidate: an appetite to build something from the ground up. “It can be challenging at the senior level to gauge the degree of entrepreneurialism. The mission commitment is self-evident when you interview candidates. The good news is that the whole space is hot when it comes to entrepreneurship.”

For The Mosaic Company’s Nicholson, soft skills are the most elusive to find.

“Business is pretty straightforward, but people are messy. So we value the ability to deal with the messiness of everyday work and getting the job done, and demonstrating the ability to truly lead and manage through difficult situations.”

Kim Nicholson, The Mosaic Company

Looking ahead

Identifying leaders with an authentic commitment to an organization’s culture is a winning approach, no matter the disruption that comes along, Kincannon & Reed Managing Director Paul Izenstark says. “It’s really selling the brand, the mission of the brand, selling shared values, because people want to get involved in a company that they can believe in and that shares their values.”

A thoughtful human capital strategy will make all the difference, no matter the organization’s future. When a company markets its employer brand well—consistently and authentically— in everything it does and everything it communicates, it’s in an excellent position to attract the kind of people who will want to work for and stay with their organization.

“The risk of not paying attention to how they attract and develop their human capital are substantial,” says Yuhas. “A company could lose customers and access to the best talent. It’s a downward spiral. On the other hand, companies that do this well leave nothing to chance. They recognize that in every interaction, they are building their corporate image. The care that a company takes with people will resonate in the marketplace. And that is something that will never change.”