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Digital Hiring: 5 things visionary leaders should do

In my ‘Thoughts’ episode from the Digital Careers podcast last week I discussed 3 themes from conversations I’m having with my C-suite clients.

To re-cap they were:

(1) Dealing with the fallout or, in some cases, the opportunity COVID-19 presents
(2) The threats from digital disruption and the prospects for the ‘digitally invested.’
(3)Hiring great people remains the biggest constraint to growth

We’re going to continue the theme of points 2 & 3 and discuss:
5 things visionary leaders should be doing about their digital hiring:

1.Invest in your future business model now: digital disruption will impact us all 

The most talented leaders in my experience are unquestionably the ones who can spin several plates simultaneously. They are great operational managers who also grasp the need to innovate, hiring people who think differently and bring new perspectives.

We’ve all seen so many organisations over the years get lulled into a false sense of security by relying on traditional revenue streams and then failing to adapt. In a BartonRock report on 5 Steps to Hire Great Data-Savvy Digital Leaders, which can be downloaded here, I highlighted that it’s sobering to think that since 2000, over half the companies in the Fortune 500 have gone bankrupt, have been acquired or dropped off that list, due to the disruption of traditional industry models by digital ones. Some once-great companies failed to adapt to the changing demands of their market.

One medical sector client I spoke to very recently, has benefited hugely from the upswing in demand created from COVID. Yet she described digital progress in her specific segment as ‘glacial’. Complacency was rife because of record profits but she was fearful that an innovative, digitally-led firm could disrupt their sector ‘Uber-style’ within a matter of a few years. The CEO will instinctively know the music’s going to stop. Still, there is a delicate balance between correctly timing any digital transformation (and remember two-thirds of them fail) and insulating your existing revenue streams: in some ways trying to disrupt yourself.

The answer arguably is to hedge your bets and try new things alongside your traditional model. But as a recent Digital Careers podcast guest said to me recently: there is often no blueprint for digital.

This is where digital strategists or visionaries are so valuable. Sometimes these profiles are Chief Technology Officers, but I’ve often seen some of the smartest senior talent move ‘in house’ from management consultancies. So, it may feel like common sense to focus on your digital future but there are still companies keeping their fingers crossed and hoping that ‘industry-changing’ digital disruption won’t occur on their watch.

2. Meet outstanding digital talent proactively 

Whilst the vast majority of executives I have placed have been from specific mandates my clients have retained me on, for organisations where I have incredibly close working partnerships, I am an advocate of business leaders continually scouting for great people – no more so than in digital. These are progressive thinking companies prepared to be more proactive and have exploratory conversations with, particularly unique profiles. Good examples of this in the digital world are data scientists and data-savvy CTOs or CMOs who can chart a digital roadmap which is instrumental in shaping new business models.

As a business leader, work schedule permitting, I have always met high-calibre people who wrote to me directly or were introduced proactively by recruiters. Irrespective of the state of the economy and for that matter the performance of your business, don’t slip into the trap of thinking you can’t afford to hire certain profiles that are critical to the future. Sometimes, you can’t afford not to, and the only cost is an hour of your time –even then you’ll have learnt something about a competitor or will have gained valuable insights into how other companies are charting their digital path. That strikes me as a remarkably good return if you unearth someone that can truly influence the digital future of your company.

The very best executive search consultants should have their finger on the pulse in their specialist market and will be able to make appropriate introductions but as another CEO guest on Digital Careers said to me recently, it’s about your employment brand and demonstrating that you do ‘cool and interesting stuff in digital’

3)    Upgrade digitally critical positions: 

Digital has been high on company agendas for some years, but COVID-19 has jettisoned it firmly to be the top priority. Companies are now seriously assessing the quality of their digital leadership and there is increasing evidence of upgrading of key roles.

I’m seeing digitally maturing companies prioritise data and digitally-savvy senior Technology, Product, Customer Experience professionals – the latter two usually sitting under the Chief Marketing Officer which is a position also earning some scrutiny since the axis between the CMO and the Chief Technology or Chief Data Officer is so critical. The key when evaluating such individuals, however, is to understand specifically how they have influenced any digital change and how precisely success was measured. This ‘evidence’ required to truly determine someone’s capability often won’t be on a CV and it requires a skilled interviewer to really dig down into the detail and assess a prospective candidate.

4)    Remember to look after your best people even if your business is in difficulty 

You might be focused on survival when this article was written in October 2020 but what’s going to get you out of a hole is great people. Even if it’s not your direct competition headhunting your people, who might be hurting equally, you can bet other organisations will be capitalising on the market opportunity and scouting for great digital people. One consumer client said to me that there was some outstanding digital talent on the market from the travel and hospitality sectors that were being snapped up by other consumer businesses. And remember, digital experience is seen as increasingly transferrable now since in some categories there is such a skills shortage and I’m seeing organisations look to learn from other sectors and have candidates bring different perspectives and challenge conventional thinking.

5)    Strongly consider redeploying talent into digital from other functions of the business 

Whilst there are certain ‘mission-critical’ digital positions where a prior track record in digital will be essential, digital jobs further down the hierarchy can often be filled with internal moves. Attitude can be as much a determinant of success in digital as prior track record and if the individual already knows the workings and culture of your company then this is already a big step forward. A visionary leader will be looking at workforce planning to fill gaps in digital functions as well as hiring from outside. I’ve seen this happening in the aviation and entertainment sectors recently as business models have needed to evolve.

This isn’t intended to be exhaustive, but I hope it provides a basic checklist and certainly something to consider.


About BartonRock: We are the executive search partner for companies where data-driven digital leadership is intrinsic to growth.

We manage the careers of leaders whose know-how and commercial acumen within digital steers the strategic direction and future survival of companies.

Our assignments search for executives who understand how to implement and lead data-centric digital agendas.

For more information visit: or contact or call +44 (0) 20 8092 6048.

You can also subscribe to BartonRock’s Digital Careers podcast by visiting Apple Podcasts

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