Digital Transformation Strategy Demands New Talent Approach


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A successful digital transformation strategy demands a flexible approach to talent and embracing diversity. 

Written by Brian Buntz

22nd October 2019

These days, most organizations are in the midst of a metamorphosis. And the execs who lead them are frequently open to the idea that their organization’s culture must be redefined to remain competitive. Large organizations often want to become nimbler and startup-like, while startups seek to scale their business and grow more mature. Digital transformation is a common theme across the board. 

Whatever the impetus, the push for a given organization to transform tends to have a degree of urgency. And as a result, in the quest to future-proof their business, many organizations look for digital veterans. They seek experts who can help do everything from strategizing, churn out code, engineer “smart products” or digitally enable existing operations. 

Ironically, in the push to future-proof their operations, many companies become exceptionally focused on the present. They tend to want candidates with lofty credentials, whether those are technical certifications, academic pedigree or years of experience with niche software. There is often less emphasis on grooming talent. 

While it is a commendable aspiration to have a team of certified geniuses, the focus on employees’ credentials can dissuade many talented candidates from applying for open positions.

The most common reason applicants don’t apply for an open job is because they felt they didn’t meet all of the qualifications, according to a 2014 article in the Harvard Business Review. That reason by itself leads 41% of women and 46% of men to not apply for a job. For women, fear of failing at a job for not meeting the requirements in addition to the desire to follow job application guidelines was cited by an additional 37% of would-be applicants as reasons not to apply for an open position. The article concludes: “All three of these barriers, which together account for 78% of women’s reasons for not applying, have to do with believing that the job qualifications are real requirements, and seeing the hiring process as more by the book and true to the on paper guidelines than it really is.” 

Sheila Ronning, chief executive officer and founder of Women in the Boardroom, expressed a similar sentiment: Frequently preaching a message of confidence to the senior-level executive women members of her organization, Ronning said a number of her members continue to ask: “‘Am I qualified?’” (Ronning is speaking on a related subject at IoT Solutions World Congress.)  

The fact is, many digital transformation leaders had humble beginnings. The book “Alpha Girls” profiles female leaders for whom this is true: For instance, there’s Magdalena Yeşil, a Turkish immigrant who arrived in the United States with $43 in her pocket and later went on to become an investor and board member at Salesforce. And years before Theresia Guow became a highly successful venture capital, she had a job flipping burgers in Middleport, New York. The two other women profiled in the book, M.J. Elmore and Sonja Perkins, have similarly relatable backgrounds before they became Silicon Valley leaders.

In any event, organizations with unrealistic requirements are dissuading talented individuals with significant potential from applying in the first place. This fact is especially evident for many organizations looking to find talent with extensive experience in hot areas such as data science and cybersecurity. Earlier this year, Forrester Principal Analyst Jeff Pollard joked in a podcast titled “Let’s Reverse Cybersecurity’s Self-Inflicted Staffing Shortage:” “We found a lot of cybersecurity leaders who wanted to hire MacGuyver but paid like McDonald’s.”

A recent Forrester survey commissioned by ServiceMax found focusing on the service organizations found that 97% of 675 global digital transformation leaders struggled to find qualified talent. In the security industry, Cybersecurity Ventures estimates there will be 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs by 2021. When it comes to artificial intelligence, a survey from the firm SnapLogic found more than nine out of 10 firms in the U.S. and U.K. made AI a priority, but more than half struggled to find talent to support that ambition. 

Ronning noticed a similar theme in recent years with gender disparity in corporate boardroom environments. “For a long time, men have, publicly even, been saying: ‘Well, we can’t find any qualified women,’” Ronning said. “For years I have been annoyed with that, and have said: ‘Hey, it’s actually not a supply issue. It’s a demand issue.’” 

A 2019 Harvard Business Review article also concludes that a common refrain from executives is that they would like to hire more women, but when they post a job, women don’t apply. The article draws advice from fishing: “If you don’t catch a fish, you don’t blame the fish. You change your technique.” In other words, many organizations could do better at attracting a more-diverse set of applicants if they reframed job listings. 

Another strategy Ronning uses to address gender-inequity in boardrooms is helping her members confidently and clearly articulate why they are qualified for open board seats and other prestigious positions. “That’s actually why Women in the Boardroom exists,” she said. 

Ronning also believes executives seeking to hire new staff should be willing to question their assumptions about talent. In the past, many organizations prioritized candidates with a long tenure at previous companies. “My generation was all about staying at a company forever. When I was involved with hiring over the years, it was frowned upon if somebody was a job hopper. They were immediately put into the ‘no’ category,” Ronning recalled. “But today, Millenials are job-hopping all of the time. It’s the norm.” 

That norm further complicates the goal of recruiting candidates with picture-perfect credentials. In an age where the tenure of many employees is a handful of years, talent retention becomes a vital consideration — especially for specialty roles. 

A final consideration Ronning points to is the seemingly simple goal of clear communication. “I do feel like there’s such a communication barrier between genders and different cultures and different races that we need to figure out a way to communicate better,” she said. “We need to keep the conversation going at all times. It’s never going to be fixed.” 

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