Every disruption – whether driven by a crisis like Covid-19, a swift move by a competitor or shift in consumer demands due to an emerging technology – has a monumental opportunity nested inside of it. As a leader, it’s your job to guide your organisation to take advantage of that opportunity.

But in order to spot these opportunities, you must develop an understanding of the broader context of  market shifts – a kind ‘Third Eye’ for detecting emerging opportunities on five- or even ten-year horizons. 

Today, all of that context is deeply rooted in existing and emerging technologies. Let me say that again: ALL of it. There is not a single person, process or product in your organisation that is not directly impacted by technology. This is why executive leaders must have a grasp of the broader tech landscape and an understanding of the ‘art of the possible’ with existing and emerging tools, and must update this knowledge continuously. Technology is no longer simply the domain of IT – it’s a strategic component that must inform the wide-lens trajectory of the organisation. 

This is a relatively new requirement. It used to be that leaders needed a deep mastery in their specific field or sector, but, as Peter Diamandis predicts in the excellent The Future Is Faster Than You Think, “technological fluency and agility will replace deep skills mastery” as a core leadership skill as digitalisation intensifies.

This is why you see leaders with technological fluency jumping across sectors in a way you never did before. Just a couple of examples include:

  • Meg Whitman, formerly CEO of computer hardware and software giant, HP made the leap to lead short-form mobile video platform Quibi.
  • Joanna Shields, former VP of EMEA for Facebook is now the CEO of Benevolent AI, a technology firm focused on re-engineering drug discovery to deliver life-changing medicines.

Conversely, you see execs with deep mastery and expertise in their sector fall by the wayside due to a lack of ability to understand and implement tech-driven transformation. Think of the differing fortunes of Blockbuster and Netflix. Whereas Netflix engineered a tech-driven business model that simplified the video-renting process, making it more personalised and customer-centric, the veterans at Blockbuster focused instead on maximizing returns, enforcing strict late penalties on rentals and sticking rigidly to a bricks-and-mortar outlook. 

  • Blockbuster CEO John Actioco can be held up as a cautionary tale of the consequence of an outmoded, tech-reluctant executive mindset. In 2008, on the eve of a huge market shift, he was quoted as saying: “I’ve been frankly confused by this fascination that everybody has with Netflix…Netflix doesn’t really have or do anything that we can’t or don’t already do ourselves.”

The cultivation of fluency in cutting-edge technologies is essential for businesses that need to move with agility in a rapidly evolving marketplace. To be clear though, technological fluency does not guarantee success – those who master it will of course need other leadership skills (communication, empathy, strategic and exponential thinking to name a few) to be truly effective leaders. 

That said, a lack of technological understanding is increasingly cited as a leading cause of failure. The World Economic Forum reported that the winners of the digital shift so far were those who had “invested well in both technology enabled initiatives and leadership capabilities”, while the losers were those with missing or mismanaged technology investment. The surest way to fall short as a leader going forward, as the digital shift intensifies, will be to underestimate the importance of technological fluency in your repertoire.

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