The future of leadership in technology

James Milligan, Global Head of Hays Technology

By its very nature, technology is constantly evolving. Accordingly, leaders in the sector need to update their skills to meet the demands of their industry and their workforce. So, what will the technology leader of the future look like?

Deloitte’s latest Global Technology Leadership Study, published in May 2020, found that almost seven in 10 (69%) expect tech leaders to be change instigators within their organisation. The study, which included more than 1,300 participants across 69 countries and 22 industry sectors, looked at the changing role of the CIO and found that tech leaders had shifted from being primarily a business co-creator and trusted operator to more of a ‘kinetic’ leader since the pandemic. The report found that, in light of ongoing uncertainty, organisations needed tech leaders to be resilient, agile and future-focused. 

Pete Hanlon, CTO at Moneypenny telecommunications firm, says the pandemic has changed the digital landscape. “Covid-19 has brought to the fore what can be achieved and what is on the cusp of being achieved technologically, but it has also highlighted that we crave that human interaction facilitated by technology. Together, these two elements will shape the way the world communicates as we step into our new future,” he notes.

The same principle applies to technology leaders now and in the future, Hanlon says. “Gone are the days of the nerdy IT officer with their head in the back of a machine, looking at endless screens of code. Today, it is about attracting brilliant people and retaining that talent in a culture of compassion and empowerment. It is about listening, empathising and collaborating, encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation and being safe in failure. Overall, it is about bringing people together under a shared purpose and nurturing them to reach their full potential.”

Humanity and technical ability

Paul Excell, former Group Technology Officer/CIO at BT and now an executive coach, says there will be much more of a focus on so-called soft skills in the next few years. “The agile leadership skills around creating psychological safety and a supportive environment for people to be the best they can be will become increasingly important,” he says. “Nurturing relationships with partners, fostering resilience, curiosity and empathy, it will be all about what a culture looks and ‘feels’ like.”

Being an authentic and active listener, having an entrepreneurial mindset and being an excellent communicator will all be essential skills for future leaders in the technology sector, Excell says.

Sean Farrington, senior vice president, EMEA at Pluralsight, an American software company, says technical skills will be the key drivers behind the change in leadership roles over the coming years.

Developments in previously disjointed fields such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and genetics and biotechnology, are all building on and amplifying one another,” he notes.

“Not every emerging technology will alter the business or social landscape – but some truly do have the potential to disrupt the status quo, alter the way people live and work, and rearrange value pools. The top areas where people need to skill up are in mobile internet, AI, virtual and augmented reality, Cloud technology, IoT and advanced robotics.”

So how can they shape their workforce to help equip them for the future? “Be an amazing, authentic role model,” says Excell. “Give people opportunities and push them (with support) into new areas, outside the comfort zone - where learning and growth happens. And be obsessed (in a good way) with how to improve every day.”

The next generation of technology leadership

Some companies, such as Henkel, a German chemical and consumer goods firm, have also implemented digital upskilling initiatives to ensure employees have the right technology skills to become the next generation of leaders.

“Successful digital change processes require a strong people focus. To ensure that the employees have the digital skills and knowledge that is needed now and in the future, Henkel has implemented a global digital upskilling initiative for all employees worldwide, offering personalised, digital-specific training sessions and supporting the company’s transformation journey,” a Henkel spokesman says.

Henkel also established a new CDIO (Chief Digital and Information Officer) position at the end of 2019. “Digitalisation is a central pillar of our corporate strategy and also requires a strong people focus. Our digital and IT teams across Henkel are combined under the leadership of the CDIO, who reports directly to the CEO,” its spokesman adds.

Size matters

But are different skillsets required between larger companies and start-ups? In a word, yes, says Zandra Moore, CEO of Panintelligence software firm. “In larger companies you tend to be more specialised in your role - so technology leaders are likely to be experts in a particular area for an organisation, whether that’s innovation, engineering or products.”

In a start-up or smaller company, however, you need to be a ‘jack of all trades,’ Moore says. “You need to be almost the innovator, the engineer and often the person that is able to deploy and implement a solution from end to end, especially in a technology company like ours, with only 50 people. Our equivalent to that would be our CTO, who essentially has built the product and still today can be involved in configuring and making that product that people use.”

Building a diverse tech talent pipeline

When it comes to ensuring you have a diverse pipeline of leadership talent, especially when it comes to creating routes to leadership for women and disadvantaged groups, keep recruiting fresh talent. This is the view of Elzelinde van Doleweerd, founder of Upprinting Food, a food technology start-up.

“It is good to bring new people into your company. Recent graduates are often educated with the newest company practises and examples. It is important to include their vision and to ask them to reflect together on the company structure and practises etc. to keep improving and updating, instead of following the routine that has been set up by long-term employees,” she says. “Cross-discipline collaborations can make the workflow and bonding more interesting.”

Farrington says that mentoring and sponsoring are also critical in attracting a more diverse leadership and to attract more women. “Organisations need to think creatively about how mentoring and sponsoring can support or subvert the challenges women face in navigating their leadership pathways, and how organisational structures and institutional practices can create conditions to embed more transformative mentoring and sponsoring for women,” he notes.

Moore says it’s also essential to have a diversity and inclusion lead in your organisation. “They can canvass and survey internally and externally, to assess what is needed and what is missing and then look to fill those gaps by bringing in key partners that have the access to the pipeline of talent you need for your organisation. You need to understand what your gaps are first, such as skills or diversity. 

“But it starts with somebody owning that agenda internally and benchmarking you against it, so that you know where you are and where you want to be.”

And what advice would leaders give to tech professionals aspiring to become a leader in the future? In a word, upskill, says Farrington. “When people upskill, they can take on new roles and work with new technology, regardless of where they are on their career path,” he says. “This has never been more important, not least because the pandemic has supercharged the digital transformation efforts of many companies.”

Upskilling and reskilling will form a critical component of economic recovery, Farrington believes. “A top-down mentality will be key too, with leaders investing time to upskill themselves, thus demonstrating their value to their employees.”

Ultimately, tech leaders will have to evolve and adapt to meet the changing demands of their industry and the digital landscape beyond. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that change is inevitable and to expect the unexpected.

Author

James Milligan
Global Head of Hays Technology

James Milligan is the Global Head of Hays Technology, having joined in 2000. In his role, he is responsible for the strategic development of Hays' technology businesses globally.

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