I've interviewed 400 CEOs. I've seen how those with PR, technology, or people skills have a better shot than ever at rising to the top.


From left: Verizon’s Hans Vestberg, General Motors’ Mary Barra, and HBO’s Richard Plepler.

Author and journalist James Ashton has interviewed more than 400 CEOs in his career. He says technology, PR, and HR are challenging finance and operations as routes to the top job. Ashton cites the leaders who reflect this new trend at companies from HBO to General Motors. See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Headhunters will scour the world of work for appropriate leaders to take the helm of corporations post-pandemic, and it’s clear to me that many of them will come from unexpected sources.

I’ve interviewed 400 CEOs – from the UK Royal Mint’s Anne Jessopp to Verizon’s Hans Vestberg – over my 20-year career as a business journalist and for my new book. I’ve detected a subtle shift in where leaders are coming from.

The traditional route to the top – operational and financial roles that businesses long regarded as weighty enough experience for running a company – is facing competition.

As demand for a different mix of skills emerges, areas that were once regarded as lightweight disciplines are being evaluated differently.

Specifically, it’s those who are well-versed at dealing with people, communications, and technology who have a better shot at the top job than ever before.

It should be obvious why. These three areas now represent a leader’s biggest opportunity – and biggest potential headache.

Soft skills, such as ensuring a company is looking after its workers, came to the fore during a period of extended remote working. Even in normal times, the modern corporation is more porous than ever thanks to Glassdoor and other social-media channels. Technology binds everything together.

These once secondary concerns – dismissed as mere cost centers or support functions – have been elevated in the corporate consciousness.

Where once divisional leaders had the power as CEOs in waiting, now human resources, corporate affairs and technology cut vital horizontals across their organizations. Experts in these fields have become adept at