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Navigating digital turbulence: a guide for leaders

March 2023

At a glance

  • Today’s generation of CIOs, CTOs and CDOs now face an increasingly complex and fast moving landscape of shifting demands, requirements and expectations — navigating this terrain is not easy.
  • The role of technology in organisations is continuing to evolve. This means that digital leaders now not only have to cover a range of sectors and be able to call on a wide variety of skills, but also really know their teams and have succession plans in place.
  • With the world in a constant state of transformation, digital leaders need to be adaptable and communicate clearly to their most senior leadership colleagues. They also need to educate colleagues of every rank, while also highlighting the important of purpose and diversity and inclusion to their organisation.

No career in tech is going to stay the same. It’s the nature of the beast — ours is a sector which will always require a fair degree of flexibility and curiosity. And that’s good, right? Think about it — who would want do work somewhere where nothing ever changes?

But these fast-moving developments also incorporate more negative challenges. Just look at how ransomware has become such a prevalent issue for organisations. Its impact has grown to such an extent that Lindy Cameron, chief executive of the National Cyber Security Centre, has warned that it represents the biggest threat to online security for most people and businesses across the UK.

At Spencer Stuart, we have found that these challenges are now firmly in the sights of boards and executive leaders with whom we work. Although boards do not have day-to-day responsibility for countering cyber-security threats, they do have oversight and fiduciary responsibility to shareholders for managing business risk. This means it is important they possess the necessary reservoir of cyber knowledge and are able to continually ask the right questions, as this HBR article points out.

As technology consultants for more than a decade, we’ve witnessed different trends come and go but today’s generation of digital leaders now face an increasingly complex and fast moving array of demands, requirements and expectations. Traversing this terrain is by no means easy.

Consider the impact of ChatGPT since its launch last November. With 100 million users already, billions of additional funding secured from Microsoft, and many other generative AI platforms also emerging, leaders are having to adapt to disrupted local and global business models or risk competitive disadvantage. Rising customer expectations are also a constant source of motivational fuel — woe betide the organisation that is unable to offer an overnight delivery option, for example.

As a result, digital leaders now must call on a wide variety of skills in order to truly harness the opportunities now available. Take data, for example. Without data scientists (to extract insights) and data engineers (to build and scale the necessary infrastructure), organisations will be unable to use it to build new revenue streams, streamline their processes or tap into any other number of potential gains on offer.

The role of technology in organisations is also continuing to evolve and this means that today’s tech leaders now have to cover a range of different sectors. As we have recently written, the number of tech leaders across the landscape has also increased. Before there was just the CIO, now there are different roles aplenty, from CDIO to CPO to CISO.

The chief technology officer, for example, is responsible for research and development, and engineering and architecture. The chief product officer, by contrast, leads on product management and product marketing, while the chief data and analytics offer has to cover the entire IT organisation — from sales and revenue and data infrastructure and applications.

Ours is now a VUCA world, one marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It’s fair to say that it’s not about transformation anymore — we’re all in a constant state of transformation. So how can leaders best navigate this fast-moving landscape? Here at Spencer Stuart, we’ve come up with six top tips for mapping the path ahead.

1. Communicate clearly and simply

They will need to have a clarity of vision which they communicate simply and often to the most senior leaders and throughout the organisation. This is now a pivotal leadership trait. Over the last few years and at the highest ranks we have seen a shift away from the deeply technical towards strategic thinking and exceptional communication abilities.

2. Education equals progress — for everyone

In some roles, leaders need to be part-educators who can raise the tech-know how of the entire leadership team and put in place the programmes, processes and cultures that raises the tech-smarts of the entire organisation.

3. Embrace change

Adaptive leadership is another key criteria. Tech leaders need to be able to adjust to changes in their environment and bring the leadership and their team along with them at the same time. This requires a willingness to try new things, as well as the ability to remain calm and offer potential sceptics the necessary reassurance and confidence to step into unfamiliar territory.

4. Connect purpose to everyone and everything

We know from our discussions with today’s top tech leaders that they are looking for a sense of purpose — and how organisations communicate this and connect the work the tech team does into the company’s wider purpose is essential for attracting, retaining and getting the best out of their talent.

We know the importance of ensuring employees are aligned to the values of a business and are comfortable with bringing their whole self to their workplace — and tech leaders (and their teams) are no exception. It’s now incumbent on tech leaders to not only upskill their teams, but to open the kimono as much as possible around the strategy, objectives and mission of the company and how the work they do directly contributes to these overarching aims.

5. Really know your team

As tech leaders now have to oversee a broader team covering more disciplines, they need to prioritise knowledge of their skills, aspirations and strengths in order to build positive working relationships and ensure the right people are in the right roles for them to fulfil their potential.

If individuals are feeling valued and empowered, they are likely to be more engaged and perform better as a result. At the same time, though, leaders should not ignore succession planning — it is vital they plan for the future in order to provide a seamless service as and when team members move on.

6. Deliver on diversity and inclusion

As digital advances and new innovations proliferate, tech leaders need to have access to a diversity of perspectives, skills and traits, and also be able to leverage them for the organisation’s benefit. Recruiting from under-represented groups is a hugely positive and ongoing development and there are some clear and practical steps that leaders can take to make their organisations more diverse and inclusive.

So, take time to reflect, and think about your own efforts and skills in these areas. Score yourself, how are you doing?

Leading challenges

The sheer power and ubiquity of technology has transformed the world we live in. It’s not about transformation anymore — that implies a beginning and an end — but more the perpetual process of change that all of us are experiencing day in, day out.

This all means that there is much riding on the ability of tech leaders to successfully juggle and manage the applications and software that have taken such firm root in our daily lives. To do so requires them to be agile and adaptable, as well as being part business strategist, part co-creator. They also need to possess inspirational communication skills and executive level gravitas, as well as exhibit a willingness for risk taking.

Few jobs will be as pivotal in shaping our future — but we suspect they wouldn’t have it any other way.

The author would like to thank Julia Westland for her valuable contribution to this article.

Click here to learn about the work of the Spencer Stuart Technology and Digital Officer Practice.