Leadership in a Digital Age

February 03, 2020

Case categories include: Leadership   Strategy & Planning   Technology   

By Warren Lutz

Johnny Loiacono knows a thing or two about how quickly technology can change, having seen many tech companies come and go during his career. That includes one-time Silicon Valley giant, Sun Microsystems, where Loiacono used to work, as well as Adobe Systems.

But the rate at which technology changes is much, much faster today. In fact, Loiacono said being a leader in what has become a truly digital age is “invigorating and terrifying at the same time." For him, "it’s similar to bungie jumping."

“It’s a daunting task to keep up with the pace,” said the CEO of Movius, a provider of cloud-based secure mobile communications software. “It’s not just the pace of technology, but also the people, the skillsets, the operations, the marketing—and the pace by which those things change.”

As other Alliance members can attest, accelerated change has profoundly impacted the challenges they face, including how they manage, who they hire and how they communicate. It also forces business leaders to confront an almost impossible question: How does one lead when everything seems subject to change?

One way to begin answering that question, Loiacono said, is to remember where innovation really comes from.

“Everyone thinks it’s all about hardware and software technology, or the resulting patents, but most of a company’s deepest intellectual property walks out the door and goes home every night,” he said. “Your job is to motivate them to come back and innovate the next day, then rinse and repeat.”

Linda Hand, CEO of Prealize Health, which uses machine learning to create proactive healthcare management, said recruiting in today’s fast-changing world is another critical challenge. “Do you hire for the skills you need today, or do you hire for the ability to develop any skill?” she said. “We’re hiring for rapid growth and rapid change, so I want to hire for the stuff we’re doing today—but I also want people who have a significant track record of learning and applying new technology.”

Hand applies the same standard to her leadership team. “Our Chief Commercial Officer, our Chief Financial Officer, our Chief Technology Officer—they all have the ability to understand new markets, be proactive and anticipate new things,” she said. “The real challenge for a team, however, is how to collate and distill everything that’s happening and decide what to do with it. You can’t be strategically planning all the time. You have to pick and choose.”

The increasing access to information presents additional hazards for today’s leaders. “You can find out things very quickly about your competitors because everyone is online,” Hand said. “But they can find out things quickly about you, too.”

Rick O’Connor, Chief Operating Officer of Invicta Medical, a clinical-stage company that is developing a first-of-its-kind treatment for sleep apnea, agrees that rivals can come from anywhere. “Our competitors used to be mostly domestic and European companies,” O’Connor said. “Now we have competitors emerging what were once 'developing markets' that are bigger, wealthier and have capital resources that are as big, if not bigger, than ours.”

O’Connor said communication is another major challenge. It’s not just that communication is evolving to a hybrid of email, text and online chat, but the fact that there are fewer guarantees of confidentiality. “The importance of the written word cannot be understated,” he said. “Every time you write something, you have to assume it’s going to be public information at some point. It shouldn’t be, but content never goes away and is infinitely discoverable.”

John Kelly, CEO of Zenreach, which specializes in driving in-store foot traffic through online advertising, said tech CEOs in particular are dealing with a generational shift in the workforce and a highly competitive job market, which requires a different leadership style.

In order to retain top talent, organizations need to recognize that, in today's environment, compensation alone may not be a sufficient tool. Consistently low unemployment and increasing salaries mean that top employees have many options available to them. As a result, organizations need to pay attention to all aspects of the employee experience. High salaries are great, but when top talent is getting recruiting calls every week, you may not be successful if that is your only lever. Organizations need to ensure that employee morale and employee environment are healthy. “We can’t be as top down as we were before. We have to adjust our approach to put a stronger emphasis on company purpose, culture and environment," Kelly said. "Inspiration is more important today than ever."

According to Kelly, another effect of accelerated change is how companies must be prepared to change direction when needed. “We might put together 3 to 5 year plans,” he said, “but no one is under the delusion that they are fixed.” In just one 12-month span, he added, Zenreach saw five new competitors in its space. “This fast-evolving environment requires all of us to be much more flexible and nimble. If you have a very rigid plan, you’re probably going to miss opportunities and competitive threats as they develop.”

Ultimately, digital technology will impact every company, according to Said Ouissal, CEO of ZEDEDA, a provider of edge computing technology, who adds that companies that don’t rethink everything they do from the ground up digitally simply won’t last. “It doesn’t matter if you are a Fortune 500 company or a startup—if you don’t embrace digital technology not only in how you work, but also in how you serve your customers and everything else, you will be irrelevant,” he said.

As an example, when Ouissal launched ZEDEDA, “we decided to not use paper and not deploy infrastructure that could not be accessed by a laptop,” he said. “Everything had to be developed, launched and accessed in the cloud.” The young developers who work at ZEDEDA understood. “They grew up in the digital age, so everything to them is an app,” Ouissal said.

At the same time, leaders need to understand and cater to how younger employees communicate. “The next generation of workers are used to working anywhere and are very accustomed to communicating online and by chat,” he said. “They are not picking up their phones, and even email is considered outdated.”

A distributed workforce was also perceived as a digital age benefit by several Alliance members. Alon Matas is the Founder and President of BetterHelp.com, which connects consumers looking for counseling to a network of nationwide, licensed, accredited and board-certified therapists through email, online chat, phone and video sessions.

“We are in a fast-paced consumer business with lots of changes,” Matas said. “Efficiency is super important, so we took the hard approach of having a real office. In my organization, you can do many more things with more people by doing it in a shared, physical space.” On the other hand, he said, “the digital age has opened up a lot of services people need that were not accessible before. Most people who need to go to therapy don’t because it’s too expensive and too inconvenient. We solved all of these problems through an online medium.”

Interestingly, when BetterHelp.com began, Matas assumed most of the therapists he hired would be young, tech-savvy recent grads. “What happened has almost been the opposite,” he said. “Most of our therapists are on the older side, which means that older people are not as un-tech-savvy as people think. They are also more willing to look into non-traditional ways to work.”

John Aisien, CEO of Blue Cedar, a no code mobile app security integration platform, said digitization reduces entry barriers for everybody, which is both an opportunity and a challenge. “It’s easier to start a business, but it's more difficult to stay ahead of the curve and more complicated to figure out who to stay ahead of,” he said.

In such an environment, Aisien believes that leading with “authenticity and credibility” is more important than personally keeping up with every new trend. “If one's objective as a leader is to know more about every relevant element of running the business than one's employees, investors and customers, by definition, that's a guaranteed recipe for failure,” he said. “My approach is just to be authentic and be comfortable with not knowing—but knowing that somebody in my ecosystem knows. It could be a customer, an employee, or a board member, and that’s fine.”

Aisien doesn’t think the accelerating pace of technology will change the CEO’s role that much, either. “Technology creates opportunities, but it’s not a substitute for sound leadership. I lean on my team a lot, and I set broad goals, and I try to recruit and manage an effective team. I reward good performance, and I constantly test the efficacy of our strategies. It’s pretty evident to see how digital tools and the use of data for everything we do helps across all these dimensions, but I think there will be some fundamental tenets of the CEO role that will remain broadly the same.”

O’Connor agrees. “What are the leadership skills that work now, compared to what worked in the past?” he asked. “They really aren’t much different. The things we’re talking about – engaging and motivating your people, communication, adaptability, constant learning – those skills will always have good outcomes.”

Trying to lead in an increasingly digital age may not be easy. But as science fiction author Isaac Asimov once wrote, "No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be." The above Alliance leaders would probably agree—and fortunately, they appear more than ready for the challenge.

Warren Lutz is a writer for the Alliance of Chief Executives newsletter. He may be contacted at lutzwrite@yahoo.com.