Digital disruption is a much-discussed topic, but what does a leader do when the industry they have succeeded in begins to erode beneath their feet?

Can their skills, experience and deep industry insight transfer to the new world of challenger businesses, or do the skills that helped make them a success actually work against them?

A recent annual survey of 2000 C-suite executives across 15 industries – including media, healthcare and wealth management – revealed the majority of executives in all but one sector (industrial) anticipate moderate to major disruption from digital over the next 12 months.

Capable, talented leaders head up companies that get disrupted. It is not a failure but part of the business cycle that exists today and which many leaders are facing.

This has certainly been the case in the media industry. In the survey, media ranked as the highest industry expecting disruption, with 72% of media executives anticipating moderate to major disruptive change over the next 12 months. This is despite the fact that the industry has already transformed almost beyond recognition over the past decade.

Any industry facing disruption – which is most – can learn from the dynamics of the media industry as leaders negotiate the career divide between pre-digital and post-digital business, and as challenger brands scale out of their start-up origins into dominant and multi-million dollar global concerns.

As a specialist in executive search for traditional and challenger media organisations, I am privileged to have a birdseye view of these disruptions.

What I am seeing unfold, may be happening earlier and more visibly in the media sector, but has parallels across several industries. Most of our clients are looking for people to help them navigate a change in the industry landscape. The skillsets and people who can do that are in short supply globally. If I was working in education or retail, we could be having the same conversation.

With that in mind, I have put together the five main opportunities that senior executives have when considering their career, post digital-disruption.

1. A Shortage of Leaders Who Can Help Scale Up

In times of uncertainty, leadership matters more than ever.
Leadership and talent management capabilities have a high correlation with financial performance, according to BCG’s Global leadership and talent index. Talent magnets, i.e. companies that rated strongest on 20 leadership and talent management capabilities, increased their revenues 2.2 times faster and their profits 1.5 times faster than “talent laggards.”

An excellent leader is a talent magnet that attracts the right people. That in itself is an essential competitive advantage for emerging businesses. The right leader also creates a strong corporate vision and narrative to keep the business focused as it navigates ambiguity, disruption and even periodic failure.

All organisations are looking for leaders who are confident and capable of dealing with constant change. As challenger brands emerge and mature, there is a shortage of leaders who can head a successful startup as its scales into an established player without losing their identity. How do you maintain a startup-garage feel while sat in a 2,000 person capacity office?

2. Leaders With Soft Skills

Soft skills matter and headhunters are looking for leaders with emotional intelligence and a consensual leadership style. Emotional intelligence or EQ is a leadership attribute that has gained significant traction since the 1980s. It is an attribute that leadership headhunters actively seek out in executive candidates for new business models.

Emotional intelligence matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, staff have different expectations of workplace culture. Millennials seek emotionally intelligent leaders, who listen and can adapt and change, but most importantly who are there for the benefit of staff and the company, not for themselves.

Secondly, emotional intelligence enables consensual leadership. Making the right choices in uncertain business conditions and complex scenarios cannot be the job of one person or one position in the company alone, as the leadership expert, Joseph Pistrui, Associate Dean for Executive Education at IE Business School, Madrid, outlines. He says “leadership must be a contact sport — one that engages, debates, and unifies in a future direction that makes sense to as many members of the corporation as possible.” Consensual leadership is in high demand, but short supply.

Thirdly, emotional intelligence is a crucial leadership attribute in any environment that constructively tolerates failure and knows how to benefit from it. As a leader, learning from personal failure is an emotionally unpleasant process that “chips away at your self-esteem”, as Amy Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at Harvard Business School says.

Learning from failure as an organisation requires an emotionally intelligent culture of openness, inquiry, patience and tolerance for ambiguity, she says. Such a culture comes from the top.

3. A Willingness To Take Risks

A willingness to take risks and to take responsibility for failure – and learn from it – is a valued capability. When an industry is in flux, no one truly knows where future success lies. As a result, leaders must be prepared to take intelligent risks.

Deloitte’s Business Confidence Report 2014: The Gap Between Confidence and Action reported that almost half the executives did not feel confident about high-risk or long-term decisions. In an uncertain environment, where options abound, but little is certain, no one individual can have all the answers, or get them right all the time. Nonetheless, paralysis is not a valid leadership option.

The problem for leaders from old model businesses is that willingness to take a risk and perhaps fail has not been a KPI. If you are running a major company and have been there for 15 to 20 years, the chances are you will not have failed. As a result, you are unlikely to have that spark that allows you to look at something and say “you know what, we’ll take that risk”.

4. A Need For A Diverse Workforce

Diversity is as important in the leadership team as it is across the whole company. Companies are looking to hire leaders with the empathy and the values of the product you are delivering. The leader of a successful challenger brand will reflect and reinforce the ethos of the organisation and the team they lead.

Arguably, the diversity issue is more pressing for the media content industry than most other sectors. If you don’t have a diverse team, you aren’t going to create the diverse content that your audience wants.

A company is at risk if they bring in an old model management team to drive them forward. They are not going to attract the right staff, and they are not going to smell right.

The business case – and the social case – for diversity has been established for any company that hopes to reflect its customer base, drive innovation and make an organisation more resilient to change. As cancer scientist Dr Darren Saunders recently tweeted: “Any biologist will tell you that diversity also builds in resilience and adaptability to unforeseen challenges.”

5. Leadership Is No Longer Industry-Bound

Leadership opportunities are global, and leaders are more likely to develop career portfolios that carry across industries as traditional boundaries blur. Startup companies are likely to have more in common with other challengers in, for example, Fintech, clean energy and media, than with the legacy industries they hail from.

What next?

Ultimately a talented leader is a talented leader, and while today’s leaders must understand the dynamics and opportunities of the new environment, the skills that have defined successful leaders for decades hold true. Someone with vision and insight who can reach everyone in the company, drive transformation and knows how to walk the floor will always be valued by organisations – no matter what stage they are at in their evolution.

For leaders emerging from disrupted businesses and business models, reflection on these five areas of opportunity can help them ensure they continue to be economically relevant in the digital age.

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