Amid all the buzz about employee learning and development, there might be a cohort HR departments have overlooked. Members of the C-suite may not be at the front lines of production, but as strategic leaders, their vision for the company might be limited if they aren't up on what's new and what's next. And when it comes to market trends for hiring and retention, outdated beliefs could stifle growth.
With this in mind, it warrants asking: Does the C-suite need as much management training and digital savvy as the workers — or is it possible they actually need more? Driving change and innovation within an organization may start with upskilling from the top down.
A case for C-suite upskilling
"Executives who accept the status quo or who are averse to change will struggle to succeed in a technology-driven future of work," Laurie Zaucha, VP of human resources and organizational development at Paychex, said to HR Dive in an email. If they fail to stay on top of trends that impact their organization, she cautioned, that failure will prevent them from making the right investments to grow the business.
"Technology and skills are interdependent," McKinsey & Company Partner Bryan Hancock wrote to HR Dive. A key part of leadership's job is to facilitate innovation and growth by keeping both in sync, he said. "Instead of starting with the last year's plan," he added, "managers need to start with a more strategic view and ask: What kind of talent and skills are we going to need to achieve the most critical initiatives?"
But growth doesn't happen in a vacuum; in fact, it can be a collaborative process, according to Eric Hansen, COO/CFO at RedPeg. "Professional growth is a two-way street between supervisor and employee, and even C-suite executives should always have an eye out for people they can learn from," he wrote to HR Dive.
The focus should be on continuous learning, all the way up to the top, Zaucha said. "Broad and diverse leadership experiences are becoming 'must haves' for career advancement, meaning today's leaders need to have an understanding of the complexity and interconnections of the business overall rather than a potentially narrow functional expertise," she said.
Leaders need to understand new tech...
As companies deal with the digital revolution, leaders at the highest level need to have an intimate understanding of how technology can impact their organizations, Teresa Bayewitz, principal at Mercer, told HR Dive in an email. With tech and automation advancing so quickly, organizations must now focus on redesigning the nature of work and redeploying people into new jobs, she added.
Stephanie Rudbeck, director, talent management and reward at Willis Towers Watson, proposed one solution: "We are seeing an increasing trend for reverse mentoring, where younger, more digitally savvy employees are paired with and mentor more experienced leaders to provide new perspectives and ideas — and digital experience and insight. It's a win-win for both parties."
Some organizations might opt to empower certain C-suite execs to lead the charge and take on this type of upskilling on behalf of the group. Leaders can't be experts in all areas of the organization, so they may need to rely on trusted experts, advised Gregg Passin, senior partner and North America executive rewards practice leader at Mercer.
"One trend we are seeing is the elevation of the Chief Digital Officer to a key member of the executive leadership team," he told HR Dive in an email. The new role of CDO oversees the gamut of how digital tech impacts internal and external experiences. "While not all senior leaders need to be 'in the weeds' on digital technology," he added, "all need to understand the implications for their businesses."
That understanding is important for leaders to embrace if they want to be seen as thought leaders in their fields, too. According to Passin: "Having some digital experience on an executive's CV is becoming similarly important to having a global experience."
...and how to manage people
Bayewitz predicts the human aspects of leadership — empathy, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence — will not be automated, so strong leadership skills will take on enhanced importance in the digital age.
Prioritizing soft skill development for leadership now could help set the tone for future leaders, as well. If an organization plans on advancing a new CEO in the near future, then it's critical they have had exposure to the right set of opportunities and experiences along the way, Hancock said. "Boards and CHROs need a picture of what the future state of the organization will be in order to strategically shape these pathways for high-potential talent," he added.
Zaucha warned that those who aren't willing to upskill their capabilities and don't embrace a technology-driven future of work shouldn't be named successors. And for current leaders who don't have the technological skills to take the business to the next level, tech-savvy successors need to be identified and developed with the help of people-focused HR professionals.
Getting there from here
So, how can HR make the case to the CEO? Bayewitz wrote there has to be an incentive to change, and there is a trend toward including a goal related to digital transformation for execs.
"At the board level, there is an acknowledgement of being in a 'do-or-die' moment for adapting to the digital future, and investments are needed to stay competitive as digital technology accelerates," she said. "For this reason, there is a willingness to pay incentives for achieving critical milestones related to the company's digital transformation, even if the investment will not yield a return in the current year."
Leaders who prioritize employee learning while exempting themselves risk falling behind as new technology imposes change on every industry. Forecasting and adapting to workforce trends and leveraging new and upcoming technology are the new challenges executives face, and they may weather the storm with greater ease if they understand its nature.