12 CEOs Outline Their Strategies For 2019

We debriefed CEOs grappling with digital digital disruption, a dearth of ready talent and other pressing challenges they'll face in 2019.Two concerns are at the top of many CEOs’ lists for 2019: digital disruption and a historic labor squeeze. These issues are combining to produce an undisputed No. 1 priority for many business chiefs in the new year: finding, keeping, training and deploying workers and managers who can succeed in the digital era.

Thousands of CEOs in dozens of legacy industries have seen the pixels on the wall: Adjust to the perils and possibilities of digital transformation of their companies, or risk falling behind.

So while most CEOs are optimistic about a continuation of the business expansion in 2019, their focus is on using today’s prosperity to fashion their companies into digital powerhouses that are viable five, 10 and 20 years from now.

CEOs we spoke with agreed that the challenge will be recruiting and retaining technically savvy talent, as well as un-leashing digital technologies that can help employees in their legacy roles and, in turn, leveraging legacy knowledge to bolster the company on its digital path.

As Avanade CEO Adam Warby puts it: “How do we balance acquiring new people and new skills as well as help existing people to move their skills into the new world?” Getting the answer right will be critical for his tech consultancy company. “That’s why the talent agenda is very much at the forefront for me,” he says.

Chief Executive talked with CEOs across company sizes, verticals and geographies about how they’re grappling with the digital transformation of their workforces in 2019. They’re dealing with issues such as ensuring digital capabilities in their leaders, managing distributed and mobile workforces, harnessing Big Data analytics, and balancing generational strengths in technology versus legacy knowledge.

Here are a dozen snapshots:

Seeking a “Digital Quotient” in Leaders

Barbara Humpton, CEO, Siemens USA

Based in Washington, D.C., the U.S. arm of the German industrial giant faces digital disruption across its fast-changing and varied verticals, which range from power generation to industrial automation to medical diagnosis.

“We’re now changing the way we analyze leaders from just the classic evaluation of who’s ready now, which looks at their IQ and their [emotional intelligence]. One thing we’re doing overtly now is talking about what their ‘digital quotient’ is—something they’ll need in the digital age. If people have leadership qualities, we really want to defer to those people who’ve shown the most inclination to get involved in the digital economy, give them a learning ground to round out all of their skills, and get them ready to lead in the future.

“[Also] we’re saying why not have, in essence, venture-capital behavior inside the corporation? So for the second year in 2019 we are giving employees around the world the chance to bring forward their digital ideas in a Shark Tank-style pitch. We also have a venture-capital arm in Silicon Valley that is making investments in digital startups. We need to have people who are catalysts and connect the startups to corporate capabilities.”

Harnessing a Distributed Digital Workforce

Bob Burke, CEO, Repair Clinic

The old business of supplying parts to consumers to repair household machines has gone digital, and the Canton Township, Michigan-based company, part of Burke America Parts Group, is overhauling its e-commerce platform.

“We are putting in machine learning to help consumers search for parts on our digital platform and we are also building content in this space. We’ve invested 100,000 man-hours in our digital transformation in the last two years, and we’ve got 30 to 35 contractors working on this in addition to 10 to 15 people working on it full-time out of our 175 to 200 employees.

“The issue is finding a team, and talent. Finding a developer who wants to work on Canton, Michigan, is difficult, so you have to adapt to finding a developer somewhere in the country who wants to work four to six hours a day on some days of the week. And where someone is based goes by where the skill set is, not where our distribution or call center is. The key is using Slack, so you can talk with people and keep them focused.”

Recasting the Customer Experience

John Schlifske, CEO, Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance

The Milwaukee-headquartered financial giant is moving to an “always-on” platform, requiring a vast expansion of its digital capabilities and favoring technical expertise that’s not the forte of its legacy home-office people.

“We have to build an exceptional customer experience that’s based on a digital platform. It’s meant to be a complement to a human financial advisor, not a replacement. We’re moving to what we call a Planning Experience, which is dynamic, 24×7, constantly updated, and constantly telling you how your investments are doing with a wellness score.

“So we’re really shifting the kind of people we’re hiring from the old model of a lot of lawyers and investment professionals and actuaries and CPAs. Now half our open jobs are digital-tech jobs. And we can’t simply retrain our investment analysts and send them on a two-week course on programming.”

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