It's not enough for leaders in the tech world to live and breathe innovation and change. The new breed of CEO in all industries must adopt a creative, tech-first mindset. While this type of experience is particularly valuable to CEOs at technology-focused agencies, having a tech-first mindset is invaluable to would-be leaders of any industry.
A tech-first mindset
What is a tech-first mindset? It's knowing and embracing the fact that in business today, predicting and inventing the future is the main strategy. It's accepting that the entire foundation of your industry could be turned upside down at any moment. It's always being on the path to the next "solve," and on the lookout for those in your periphery that are designing a new solution you'll have to compete with. A tech-first mindset allows you to stay one step ahead because you're not flustered by new ideas or disruptions. This mentality stems from the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills engineers and programmers use in their work every day.
It applies so well to the challenges of being a CEO that it's no wonder so many of today's most successful companies are run by technologists and engineers by training. Just look at Harvard Business Review's 2014 list of "The Best-Performing CEOs in the World;" 24 out of 100 have undergraduate or graduate degrees in engineering. And it's not just those at the helm of technology companies -- it's Carlos Alves de Brito of Anheuser-Busch InBev; Kari Stadigh of insurance company Sampo; and Jeffrey Sprecher of financial services firm Intercontinental Exchange.
So how do CEOs of the future develop a tech-first mindset? Here are three strategies:
1. Develop hard tech skills. If you're at a point where you can actively learn and gain hard tech skills, by all means do so. And encourage your team and staff to do the same. Here at KBS, we offer coding classes that any employee can attend, even members of our accounts team, who will never need to write a line of code to do their job. Tech is relevant to all of our employees because innovation -- and invention -- is at the heart of what we do. We strive to create a culture where radical creativity and fresh solutions are encouraged. When you immerse yourself in the mindset of problem-solving and critical thinking necessary to learn a hard skill like coding, you build muscles that will propel you forward in other areas.
2. Don't forget about soft tech skills. Learning how to design a website or build an app isn't a requirement to think like an engineer. You should, however, take time to understand the functionality, benefits, confines, use and purpose of the technology that is most important to your sector. By grasping how a program, app or piece of software can be used, you inherently become more informed and able to now think beyond that piece of technology to what could be possible tomorrow or next week -- which is ultimately your purpose as a leader.
How can you envision change and be forward-thinking if you don't understand the flaws of the systems your business depends on today? Within the advertising industry, understanding the base functionality of our most-used technologies and platforms -- all of which are fundamental to our businesses -- allows us to come up with unique and creative solutions within the confines of the system at hand.
3. Spend time in the tech department. Those with an eye toward the C-suite would do well to spend some time in their technology departments on their way up, because tech serves as the basis for innovation and competition in almost every industry today. Knowing how things actually work from the inside out will give you a massive edge over those who do not. Just take Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. He has an undergraduate degree in engineering and masters degrees in both computer sciences and business. Before he became CEO at Microsoft, he was president of its server and tools division, senior VP of research and development at the online service division, and executive VP of its cloud and enterprise group.
As CEO of KBS, it's clear to me that my technology experience is the most valuable thing I have to draw from as I make day-to-day decisions and work to stay competitive in an insanely fast-paced business environment. Inventive ideas and the ability to see 10 steps ahead of the competition and outsize ambition are at the core of the tech-first mindset. They are also the qualities that make a great CEO. There's no business in the world that wouldn't benefit from this kind of attitude.