Key skills of leaders in the digital age

September 2019

“The big don’t eat the small, the fast eat the slow.” This saying from the 1980s, often quoted and attributed to the former CEO of BMW, Eberhard von Kuenheim, is becoming increasingly true. At that time, it was inconceivable that a presidential tweet could be read around the world within fractions of a second and cause stock market indices to soar or fall. Or that a few students could use digital business models to shake up entire industries overnight. Or that a trade dispute could cause worldwide shifts in value chains.

The ability to adapt quickly is a core competency. The significant reduction of lead times in fast-moving contexts is a second core competency. A third is the ability to increase innovative capacity and sharpen the unique selling proposition (USP). The creation of a brand world and the emotional charging of goods and services represent a fourth core competency. And another is the successful integration of a new generation of employees who are looking for a meaningful job and wish to have their say.

What does this mean for the requirement profiles of boards of directors and management members? As close partners for our client companies, we have noticed that experience is again gaining in importance. This does not primarily concern industry experience, but rather a key skill in business transformation in the broadest sense. After almost ten years of economic boom, there is a renewed demand for managers who bring with them turnaround experience, who have implemented an innovation strategy, relocated the value chain, made make-or buy-decisions, restructured companies and managed change projects. Experience consists of action and learning – both through success and failure. The more experience a leader has on their map, the more quickly they can assess a new business situation and define strategic approaches or rethink a conventional business mechanism.

Experience in business transformation, emotional intelligence and entrepreneurial thinking as key skills

A second key skill is emotional intelligence. Leaders are team players, sparring partners and empowerers. They are able to inspire and motivate employees. They are not know-it-alls, but people who listen and ask questions. They lead in a cooperative spirit and are able to assert themselves when appropriate. They promote creativity and innovation and establish a culture which tolerates mistakes. They are integrators and bridge-builders between the “old” and the “new” world. They can attract the best talent, develop managers and employees, and align a company towards a goal.

A third key skill is entrepreneurial thinking. “Hunters” are in demand, not “farmers”. This means understanding customer needs, identifying and leveraging business opportunities, taking risks and seizing chances. Ultimately, it is about assuming responsibility for the successful further development of the company.

In a fast-moving, globally networked economy, the requirement profile for a management figure is very demanding. And rightly so, because as part of the management team their experience, emotional intelligence and entrepreneurial thinking make them the deciding factor for the success or failure of a company. Here are four examples from our search mandates:

  • Appointment of a Chairman of the Board of Directors for a low-income trading company, offering turnaround experience and proven expertise as a sparring partner for operational management.
  • Appointment of a CEO for an internationally active production company, offering turnaround experience, experience in the implementation of an innovation strategy and a strong entrepreneurial spirit.
  • Appointment of the Swiss CEO of a dynamic, internationally active insurance company. They were looking for a strong leader with international experience in getting things done and an affinity for agile development methods, a true marketer with the ability to provide new impetus. 
  • Recruitment of a sales and marketing manager in a typical, export-oriented Swiss SME and “hidden champion”. The main task of the new appointee is to manage the profitable expansion of distribution activities, taking into account a complex supply chain, while at the same time presenting the owner with an empathetic and entrepreneurial approach appropriate for a successor candidate. 

“Business transformation” and “digital diversity” are core issues for us: as a versatile, dynamic Swiss Executive Search Boutique, with added leadership consultancy, we want to take our share of responsibility for the successful development of companies in the digital age. Witena can be your sparring partner and has the enthusiasm and skills to support you in the further development of your company.