How technology is reshaping the modern C-suite

The internet, data analytics and automation make well-rounded, tech-savvy and innovation-hungry leaders a necessity for success.

InnerSpace, Chief Marketing Officer, Cerys Goodall spends much of her day focused on clients and their data. She darts to and from customer meetings, studies data analytics reports and brainstorms improvements to the software dashboard. All that before she turns to her regular marketing duties.

“My role doesn’t look like a typical marketing role,” Goodall says with a laugh. “I think people can have the most success when they can move outside of that box and be as flexible as possible.”

As little as a decade ago, many of her responsibilities would lie well outside the job description of a CMO. Today, they’re becoming increasingly common. And tomorrow, they may be a requirement.

Technology is touching every part of the business cycle and forcing companies to radically rethink the way they operate in the process. As a result, they’re looking to a new breed of leaders with the skills and savvy to digitally transform their organizations from top to bottom. This has spurred entirely new executive roles while reinventing the duties of more traditional ones.

It’s understandably challenging to keep pace with these rigorous and rapidly evolving demands. However, there are several major themes emerging that can steer aspiring executives in the right direction and help companies home in on the right talent.

Executives must understand the importance of continual technological evolution

Every company is becoming a technology company. Therefore, every executive must become a technology executive. That doesn’t mean all members of the C-suite should be able to code with their eyes closed, but it does mean they should be able to identify how emerging technologies apply to their business and formulate a plan to leverage them. Otherwise, they risk falling out of touch with customers.

That’s one reason why roles such as Chief Information Officer, Chief Digital Officer and Chief Security Officer have cropped up in many corner offices. Companies need specialists who can integrate new technology systems across segments and measure their effectiveness because this data underpins so many strategic decisions. These leaders ideally have experience in data analytics and digital infrastructure, with a background in logistics or sales a plus.

“How do we paint a picture with this data that resonates with somebody to take action? We used to only think about that in terms of customers, but the reality is, internally that person is the CEO, the CFO, the HR person,” says Goodall, whose company uses IoT sensors to track activity in office spaces to help managers make better use of their space. “That data has to translate into something meaningful that gets people excited and sparks change.”

Similarly, Chief Technology Officers must be technology trend-watchers that push for the right investments as opposed to merely maintaining solutions already in place. Look no further than the massive data breaches at large companies such as Yahoo!, Target and Equifax as evidence that a CTO on the cusp of ever-evolving technology is paramount.

“If you’re not a Swiss Army Knife that comes to the table with skills outside of your predominant field, it’s not going to work that well,” notes Andrea Zand, Co-Founder and Operations Lead at FI.SPAN, a fintech provider for banks. “Technology touches on more than just your role and more than you anticipated.”

Executives must possess a holistic understanding of their business

The added complexity that technology brings to a business means operating in silos becomes incompatible with success. Major investments in technology are typically expensive and frequently disruptive events and a major misstep can be crippling. Therefore, having leaders with diverse work experience and familiarity with technology platforms across different business segments is critical.

“What we’re seeing is cross-functional skill sets being applied,” says Donna Litt, Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Kiite, a Montreal-based startup using artificial intelligence to assist with client outreach. “We’re all data-driven and we’re all looking at the same types of processes and conversions, so those skill sets that work in one area can work in others as well.”

This need for cross-functional aptitudes has led diverse job duties to consolidate under a single executive role. The creation of the Chief Commercial Officer is a perfect example; it speaks to the need for a point person to handle innovation, product development, marketing and sales for both physical and e-commerce operations. The transformation of the Chief Financial Officer is another. Once largely confined to accounting duties, the CFO is increasingly the CEO’s most crucial partner in managing the risks associated with adopting new technologies and strategizing about big-picture investments. Marketing and sales roles also continue to merge.

“Whoever lives in the CMO [Chief Marketing Officer] seat has a really strong appreciation and understanding of funnels, conversions and processes,” adds Litt. “You can make a case for a CMO who is managing everything from demand generation to churn and retention and having their skills applied in many different ways. Recruitment is a really great example; essentially, your recruiting funnel is very similar to your customer funnel.”

Executives must communicate technology initiatives clearly

In order for a technology-driven company to run on all cylinders, employees at every level need to comprehend the long-term vision and where they fit within it. This is especially pertinent as concerns about automation technologies abound. That’s why clear and consistent communication — forever a hallmark of well-run organizations — is more important than ever.

The shift away from Chief Human Resources Officers and towards Chief People Officers, Chief Happiness Officers, and Chief Culture Officers highlights the growing value C-suites are placing on cultural cohesion. These leaders are adept communicators with the soft skills such as empathy and open-mindedness needed to relate to members of their team and navigate workplace transitions. Similarly, CIOs need to be skilled at relaying the strategic benefits of new technology systems to peers in other segments of the business.

“Unless data means something to someone, they can get overwhelmed and they aren’t sure what to do with it,” says Goodall, the InnerSpace CMO. “I think about how we can bring that data to life and inform someone in a very easy way that will validate decision-making.”

Automation technologies will only enhance productivity if the existing human staff is ready to transition to new roles that add value to the organization. Therefore, senior executives need to identify the hard skills employees will need to evolve along with the company and prepare robust retraining programs. Unfortunately, that’s rarely a top priority — particularly for startups with limited resources. A study for the MIT Sloan Management Review found just one-in-five employees at organizations early in their digital transformation believe they have the resources needed to obtain skills relevant in the new economy.

“With tech comes a whole suite of security regulations and that is forever changing. We have educational platforms that we’re updating monthly, quarterly, yearly,” says FI.SPAN’s Zand. “It’s difficult. You need to avoid falling victim to the ‘shiny new tool’ syndrome because that can become a nightmare in re-education.”

While technology is continually reshaping the way businesses are run and C-suites composed, people skills remain one pivotal constant. A team of researchers at the Harvard Business Review studied hundreds of executive profiles and discovered that leadership skills and a solid understanding of business fundamentals ultimately matters much more than functional expertise. That conclusion should serve as a guiding light for companies wading through the dark of a digital transformation still in its infancy.

“It’s always going to come down to, ‘does this person understand what it means to be an executive at a people level?’ because everything else follows,” says Litt, the Kiite COO. “If they understand people, they understand risk, they understand the need to learn, they understand the need to use [technology] appropriately. Then, it’s about investing in resources and filling in the gaps.”

BDC Capital — WIT Thrive
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