Sofia Wingren is the CEO of global learning provider Hyper Island (opens in new tab).
We are all more than familiar with the so-called skills gap currently facing the global workforce. If the developments we read about every day are true, universities and colleges across the world are struggling to deliver graduates fast enough and, when they eventually do, these individuals lack many of the digital skills necessary to drive innovation and move businesses forward.
With an acute focus placed on the perceived deficit within the current talent pool - a generation of digital natives whose formative years were defined by the presence of technology - it becomes easy to overlook the absence of skills at the higher rungs of the career ladder. That is, the skills gap faced by senior management. But most importantly, by CEOs, for the majority of whom routine reliance on technology is far more of a recent development.
A huge amount of pressure is being placed on executives to ensure their organisations remain future-proof in a rapidly changing digital landscape. And yet for some reason, we fail to consider the importance of doing the very same on an individual level. Executives are expected to live and work in the future, constantly planning for the next quarter, year, decade, but how do they actually go about learning what the future will look like? Especially when many rely heavily on personal assistants to handle a lot of the day-to-day tech.
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Being open to new technologies
Holding the purse strings as the ultimate decision-makers, senior executives arguably have the biggest potential to put their organisations at risk. They are the ones likely to quash innovation due to a lack of understanding or familiarity, as few can remain immune to the influence of technology-driven disruption. Technologies offer access to new opportunities and enable positive change and, of course, they mustn’t be viewed with contempt. But if your CEO is wary of technology, that can have a trickle-down effect that can spread company-wide. So how can CEOs best navigate emerging technology and equip themselves with the skills and tools needed in today’s work environment, without showing too much weakness to a workforce whose respect they need to command?
Of course, a good place to start is by acknowledging individual shortcomings, and not being ashamed to do so. Joining Hyper Island as CEO, I remember the overwhelming sense of despair I underwent at being handed a MacBook, after years of having used PCs. I realised I would have to relearn the way I interacted with computing while dealing with the stresses of a new job. Had I not admitted to this gap in my skillset, I would likely still be struggling to open the software required to pen this piece!
From this place of self-awareness and humility, executives can ask for help - be it from colleagues, peers outside their organisation, or mentors who have already been there and done it. But this approach will not necessarily take them outside of their industry, and if you are to learn about the future you need knowledge of a variety of sectors and technologies. These days, due to service design becoming one of the greatest disruptive forces in our lives, it is not just those purely with a background in banking that are going to make waves in the banking sector, for example.
What’s more, with the pace of change in today's workplaces moving at unprecedented rates, the likelihood of a mentor having dealt with the particular issue at hand and being able to share learnings from the experience is significantly reduced. New stressful tech-related scenarios are popping up every day. Rather than having a step-by-step handbook for each of these situations, the most effective skill CEOs can have is the versatility to find solutions to unique problems.
Learning is a lifelong process
As such, CEOs would do well to expand their skillsets and learn from a more diverse selection of people. This can be achieved through a combination of reading thought leadership pieces, listening to podcasts and attending training programmes. The importance of continuous learning often seems to get forgotten as people progress in their career. We tend to assume that once someone has reached a certain level, they know everything there is to know. This can leave executives feeling incredibly isolated at the top.
Learning culture comes from within and tends to have the greatest effect when implemented from the top down. Nearly 30 years ago, Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at MIT, wrote about the value of becoming a learning organisation in his book ‘The Fifth Discipline’. That is, a company that facilitates the learning of its members by continuously transforming itself and its importance still holds true today. Only leaders who are adaptable, practical, and attuned to the digital age can ensure that the application of new tech and tools will ultimately be successful and enduring. It is they, after all, who are responsible for setting the example for a strategic shift which, in turn, will encourage the natural upskilling of employees.
The fact of the matter is, technology doesn’t stand still for anyone. It continues to proliferate and advance, and it can be very hard to predict the next iteration. The one thing we can be certain of is that there will be change. And change doesn't have to be a dirty word! Beyond swotting up on the various digital technologies out there, CEOs need to embody a mindset that is open to meeting change, rather than adverse to it. They need to be comfortable constantly learning, unlearning, and relearning, plugging their knowledge gap with a more agile and open approach, and leading by example. The technology will come (and go), but it needs to be driven by people, for people.
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