Why tech needs new leaders for disrupted times

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The current adversity the world is experiencing is disruption in its most extreme form. Every part of our lives is being impacted, and no one is immune. Technology, now more than ever, will play a major role in this pandemic – also raising questions over the kind of leadership most needed to survive this crisis and what role top leaders in tech should play.

On a positive note, artificial Intelligence and high-performance computing in particular are being deployed at scale to analyse vast data sets to find remedies for COVID19. The UK is at the vanguard of this due to our pre-eminence in these areas of cognitive science – which can only be good for the domestic tech sector looking forward.

At the same time technology is also being used as never before to help society adjust to a new normal. Almost overnight, vast swaths of the population have dramatically altered working patterns. The way we communicate and collaborate has changed, maybe forever.

Social distancing has forced us into isolation, changing how we interact. People have quickly adopted new ways of living and working, with unified communications platforms entering the home and social media and mobile devices becoming daily substitutes to face to face interaction. They are maybe a short-term antidote in our home, but the future of work revolution that was building momentum pre Covid-19, is founded on these technologies becoming mainstream. Overnight, Covid-19 has proven the business case for them and there will be no going back.

Before coronavirus, the term disruption was largely seen as a positive force, challenging and changing how we do things, usually leading to better ways of working, living and consuming. But Covid-19 a whole new form of disruption with few if any parallels beyond, perhaps, what qualities and attributes companies need most from their top leaders to manage in the face of adversity.

Our firm recently undertook a global study with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services to investigate this, asking nearly 2000 senior managers at companies of all sizes around the world how confident they were in their top leaders successfully to navigate major disruption. It found that just 15% believed their top team had what it takes to face off against change at scale. But the work also identified how specific leaders are coping, including heads of technology functions, and the qualities and attributes companies need most from them in these turbulent times.

We found a significant “confidence gap”, between the importance placed on those in top roles to help companies successfully navigate disruption and the ability of present incumbents to do it well. For instance, 85% of senior managers believe CEOs have the most central role – yet far fewer (just 60%) have confidence in the current incumbent. Chief Information Officers and Chief Technology Offers were ranked as next most important after the CEO by 53%, but here too there is a significant shortfall in confidence current incumbents can deliver, with only 31% believing they will.

So, what’s lacking? Our conclusion from this study, borne out by the work we see with companies and senior leaders around the world, is that companies must reinvent leadership for the modern world. New leaders are needed for new challenges in fast-changing times.

Our work identifies three essential traits for leaders who can successfully manage through disruption. These are: a high degree of agility, open and consistent communication and high emotional intelligence. Importantly, these “new leaders” must also show vision, purpose, and possess strong talent skills – not only understanding what’s needed across their teams, but to work collaboratively, inspire and foster new ideas, and engage people across the organisation.

As politicians face panic and uncertainty, those managing well are already demonstrating some of these capabilities in a wider content. They must be able to evolve strategy quickly, pivoting rapidly as new challenges arise –and be agile, whilst keeping communications channels open to ensure the public are informed and broadly supportive to carry actions forward.

We are in the early days of a new future for companies and technology leaders as all organisations seek to chart a new course looking ahead. Much remains unknown but it is already clear that the technology function and sector, like most others, will need new leaders for changed times.

Michael Drew is Global Head of Technology at Odgers Berndtson

Michael Drew

Michael Drew is Global Head of Technology at Odgers Berndtson, a leading international executive search firm. During a 15 year career in executive search, he has partnered with high-growth software innovators and tier-one consulting firms & systems integrators on an international basis.