Executive Talent in Technology

Kate Chetwynd-Talbot who leads the Technology and Digital Practice at Executive Search firm Ridgeway Partners tells us what the coronavirus pandemic is going to mean for executive talent in technology and some of the trends starting to emerge.

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An interview with Kate Chetwynd-Talbot, Digital and Technology Practice Lead at Ridgeway Partners

The coronavirus pandemic has severely impacted all industries and markets, globally. Technology adoption, particularly, for collaboration and communication has seen a hockey stick growth adoption curve. However, investment in other technologies has had immense scrutiny and projects are being re-evaluated. This has a direct impact on executive talent in Technology and Digital.

A review of the total number of digital and technology appointments or promotions in 2020 reveals that only 14.5% of women occupied these roles. Still a long way to go then when 370 men were hired or promoted in the year.

This month we spoke to Kate Chetwynd-Talbot who leads the Technology and Digital Practice at Executive Search firm Ridgeway Partners, about what this is going to mean for executive talent and diversity in the sector. Interview by Ayasha Ali at BoardEx.

1. What is your role at Ridgeway Partners? I specialize in technology and digital senior executive, Board and advisory board appointments. I work across a range of sectors including consumer, technology and financial services.

2. Why did you decide to specialize in Technology and Digital executive talent? I started my career in executive search in the consumer markets practice, with an early specialism in digital which evolved into the technology and digital functions. No matter the sector or business model, everything is being disrupted by technology, and I am fascinated by this fast moving, strategically important and competitive talent pool.

3. What did executive recruitment in this area look like before the pandemic? Prior to the pandemic, organizations were focused on the digitalization of their business models. There was a massive drive for transformation and simplification, delivering a technology step change in tools and services and how businesses operate (i.e. Cloud vs On Premise). As a result, recruitment in this area was growing in importance and companies were starting to consider the merging of senior digital and technology officer roles, and the elevation of these roles to the Executive Committee.  It is worth mentioning, however, that before the pandemic, many companies were overplaying how digitally enabled they were, with most still viewing the IT function in its most traditional sense, with the emphasis being on security and compliance.  Much of the world’s contact centers are still On Premise, rather than embracing the Cloud.  Prior to the pandemic, digital and technology adoption in most sectors was still too slow.

4. What are some of the emerging trends you have observed with Technology and Digital executive talent? Companies are demanding more than just strong technical skills from their technology leaders, they are also seeking strategic and broader business skills, as well as robust stakeholder management skills. Good technology leaders are in high demand and are able to command significant salaries accordingly.  Despite the paucity of women in technology, especially at a senior executive level – for example, BoardEx data shows that  in the FTSE 350, only 10% of CTOs, 13% of CIOs and 22% of CISOs are women – companies are increasingly seeking more diversity from their technology talent, and they are looking to invest in their pipeline in particular.  Where prior to the pandemic, Technology Business Continuity Planning was historically underfunded and underrated by Executives and Boards, because of the pandemic, there has been a significant and rapid investment in technology. For example, three months ago, banks would have said that Traders could not work remotely, now most white-collar workers in the UK have gone from being office based to working from home.  Following the pandemic, there is the recognition that BCP (Business Continuity Planning) and DR (Disaster Recovery) should be an integral part of IT and the operating model, and as a result of COVID-19, there is proven investment in it.  One such CIO commented “the pandemic has been a lightning bolt moment for our CEO and Board.  We have achieved digital enablement in the space of one month, where previously it had taken years to get traction on some of the proposed digitizations. The technology changes our business has had to make in adversity have been well recognised and praised by the organization, and we will not return to how we operated before the pandemic”.

5. What is the situation like now? The particular hockey stick growth is reactive. However, will it be sustained and fundamentally change the way we work? Is the pandemic accelerating digital transformation? Yes, the hockey stick growth is a reaction to the current situation, but our view is that this will be a sustained period of investment and a long-term trend.  Businesses are having to reengineer themselves for the ‘changed’ post-pandemic world, accelerating technology enabled processes, putting greater emphasis on regulation and having the correct controls in place in the government, banking and pharmaceutical industries especially, and ensuring a sustained and increasingly flexible workplace environment.  Multiple companies including Unilever, Barclays, HSBC, JP Morgan, Facebook and Standard Life Aberdeen (to name but a few) are not planning to fully reopen their offices until 2021. Twitter’s policy is for employees to continue working from home indefinitely (‘forever’). Many companies are therefore reducing and readjusting their office footprint and investing in agile technologies to acclimatize to a digitized workforce. Having the right technology function, that understands the best levers to pull and how to deploy technology to get the right advantages for the business will be paramount.

6. What will it look like post this pandemic? It is too early to tell the full effects on the Technology and Digital market, especially as most businesses are basing their operational and business resilience decisions/responses on government policy, the evolution of the virus and lead time to the vaccine. However, demand for top Technology and Digital talent is greater, due in part to the workplace transformation in response to COVID-19. In addition, the UK and European Regulators are now taking a greater interest in CISO/Cyber expertise within organizations. Where there is increased demand however, supply will be a challenge.  The talent pool will therefore become even more competitive and companies may continue to seek talent overseas or look to embed more training and skills internally to ‘grow their own’ digital workforce.

7. How will the pandemic reshape Executive Search in Technology and Digital? The growth and elevation of the Technology function is akin to the rise of the Risk and Compliance functions in the aftermath of the financial crisis.  Where pre-COVID-19, there was already a strong debate as to whether Technology and Digital Officers should have a seat on the Executive Committee, the crisis will have intensified these discussions, and Boards will also seek to “beef up” their technology expertise.  Previously business leaders were not always comfortable with change/the pace of technology evolution, they will now have to adjust, and become even closer to the technology agenda/become more technology literate themselves.  Similarly, we will see greater emphasis for Technology Officers to lead from the front, understand more around how the business operates and how to manage risks.  As a consequence, there will be more demand for talent, although this talent pool may not have changed.  This will therefore be the catalyst for greater investment in pipeline and diverse technology talent.  We expect to see an increase in ‘digital tooling’ within companies and education. We are also seeing much greater acceptance among our clients for technology playing a greater part in the search selection process (e.g. virtual interviewing) and we expect this change of appetite to be permanent to some degree.

8. What advice are you giving to your clients to navigate the situation now in preparation for the post-pandemic focus areas on technology and digital talent? Businesses cannot afford to ignore this. Investment in technology needs to find its way to the top of the strategic agenda. The Technology Officer is now even more critical to the operational efficiency of a business, and therefore needs to have a more strategic ‘voice at the table’.  The danger is that some traditional companies will continue to view technology as a cost rather than an opportunity to be exploited.

About Kate Chetwynd-Talbot

Kate joined Ridgeway Partners initially to focus on retail, digital and consumer executive and board appointments. She now specializes in technology and digital senior executive, Board and advisory board appointments across a range of sectors including consumer, technology and financial services. She works with a diverse portfolio of clients across the FTSE 350, AIM and privately-owned and private equity backed growth businesses. Follow Kate on LinkedIn

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