Do You Have What -- and Whom -- It Takes to Compete in a Digital World?

Spencer Stuart's Best Practices for Getting Needed Leadership

By Published on .

Christopher Nadherny
Christopher Nadherny
Dana Wade
Dana Wade
We live in a world that's increasingly connected, digital and mobile, and influenced by social networks. The shopping and media-consumption patterns of consumers are evolving at a dizzying clip. Entire industries such as travel and music have been largely reshaped almost overnight. Multibillion-dollar, digitally enabled companies evolve in a few short years.

All of this has the management teams of all sorts of companies asking a key question: "Are we prepared to operate in an increasingly technology-driven world?"

Companies that have the right leaders in place will be able to answer with a confident "Yes." Spencer Stuart recently completed a global and multisector study to provide insights into this very issue. Through 50 interviews with top-level executives in nine industry sectors across North America, Europe and the Asia Pacific region, we honed in on a series of best practices for companies building their organization's digital capabilities. Here are the top four pillars for solving the digital-leadership challenge:

Senior-level buy-in. Investments in digital require the appropriate buy-in and support of the board, CEO and top leadership because of the breadth of digital's impact on the company. Digital is about more than simply a new approach to marketing campaigns; success ultimately will be measured by the seamless integration of technologies across advertising, direct response marketing, sales, supply chain, public relations, employee communications, and supplier and vendor relationships. And that takes ownership at the very highest levels of the organization. Only executive-level sponsorship will break down organizational silos, secure the appropriate resources for digital initiatives and attract experienced, digitally adept leaders in key roles, including the CMO, head of media, brand leader, chief digital officer and head of e-commerce. In an environment where there is top-level support for digital, the board and CEO will devote time to understanding digital and defining the organization's digital priorities. For example, the former head of interactive for a major automaker told us that he met monthly with the company chairman for three hours at a time.

Executives in the senior leadership team "get" digital. Senior marketing and business leaders have to know enough about digital to appreciate which platforms the company should consider investing in, based on the brand and customer base, as well as what the organization can support. They should understand how their customers are using digital to get information about products and services and how their use of tools such as social media and mobile influence their buying decisions. Leaders across the organization, then, need to be convincingly up-to-date on digital technologies, using them broadly to gain an intuitive understanding of their potential. Learn to text. Get on Facebook. Buy a smartphone. Be inquisitive about emerging technology and e-commerce platforms such as Groupon. Watch and learn from digital leaders such as Google to understand emerging trends. In order to drive innovation, marketing and business leaders with digital responsibilities must recognize they don't necessarily have all the answers, but can create an environment that allows different points of view to come to the table. They need to be curious, versatile and open to collaboration. Senior leaders should be passionate advocates for customers -- making sure that decisions are made with customers in mind -- and be willing to take the lead in using analytics to inform a range of strategic and operational business decisions.

Companies that thrive in a tech-driven world have cultures that promote innovation and collaboration. Leaders in digital roles, which could include the CMO, the e-commerce head, the brand manager or others, need individuals within their organizations who can advance digital objectives, given the pace, values, intensity, structure, decision-making process and role of digital in the company's business. Occasionally, it will be necessary to jolt an entrenched culture. We have heard of companies doing this in a number of ways: setting up a small, stand-alone unit to experiment with digital initiatives away from the existing infrastructure; establishing a strategic unit to "reverse engineer" ways to embed digital in existing processes; or taking the entire management team on a tour of Silicon Valley companies to see firsthand the power of digital technologies.

Consistently win and keep top talent. The simple reality is that the best digital talent is still in short supply and much more transferable than other functions. Only those companies with a clear digital strategy, overt C-level strategic leadership, a culture that values experimentation and creativity, and a reporting structure that empowers leaders with digital skills will get the best. But attraction is only half the battle in today's digital talent market; retaining top performers is equally important. During boom times, organizations are at risk of losing a significant portion of their digital talent. The good news is that organizations that do a strong job of attracting talent are more likely to be effective in retaining talent. In other words, the same factors that help attract quality talent are often the same factors that help retain that very talent. These factors include challenging work, commitment from senior management, establishing a test-and-learn environment and visibly recognizing contributions.

Like all executives, leaders with digital responsibilities change jobs for many reasons -- including a lack of resources, limited growth opportunities, or a lack of communication and clearly articulated strategies. Executives stay because of the opportunity to make an impact, meaningful job content and compatibility with senior management. A strong and healthy corporate culture, the caliber of leadership at the top, strong career growth opportunities, market-based compensation and quality of life are additional considerations.

Successfully recruiting experienced digital leaders requires a concerted, focused and well-informed approach. Carefully define the requirements of the role, based on the organizational strategy as well as the business' technical and cultural needs. Recognize that variables such as reporting structure, organizational structure, culture, the degree of senior-level sponsorship and resource levels all affect a company's ability to attract talent. Finally, don't "under hire." The cost of making the wrong hire is significant considering the current pace of technology advancement in digital and the corresponding opportunity costs and capital/program investment. And to make sure you get that "impact player," be creative with compensation -- provide a sign-on bonus, additional equity compensation or short-term incentives, or commit to an early review.

Christopher Nadherny and Dana Wade are consultants in Spencer Stuart's Consumer Goods & Services and Marketing Officer practices. They also are co-authors of the study "Talent 3.0: Solving the Digital Leadership Challenge -- A Global Perspective," which is available in its entirety at
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