Reskilling the C-Suite: Leading into the Future

C-suite executives are not being asked to personally match the reskilling demands that are being placed on other levels of the leadership hierarchy. There are some very basic things senior business leaders can do to ensure you are transforming yourself at the same pace and magnitude as you are trying to change your organisations.

Ranjit de Sousa, President, LHH
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I have always considered myself digitally literate.

I’m comfortable using all my tech devices and know my way around social media. In my position at LHH, I have regular and informed conversations with other senior leaders about things like artificial intelligence, machine learning and the blockchain.

So, when I agreed to take a digital literacy self-assessment a couple of years ago, I wasn’t all that worried about the outcome.

Turns out I should have been at least a little concerned.

The self-assessment is part of a foundational digital literacy course for executives offered by General Assembly, a sister enterprise to LHH in the Adecco Group. To my great surprise, I found out that there were several areas of digital knowledge where I just didn’t know as much as I should have.

That’s a tough realisation for any executive leader. How could I be lacking in skills and knowledge that are so essential for success in the current business environment? That question strikes deep at the heart of a much bigger issue: the collective failure of executive leaders to engage their organisation in reskilling and upskilling.

Unless you have starved yourself of all business news, you’ll know that the world is facing an enormous skills mismatch that could possibly leave tens of millions of working people around the world out of a job. Too many people are trained to fill jobs that are quickly disappearing; too few have the training and skills to fill the jobs of the future.

None of us can say we haven’t been warned.

From Oxford University and MIT, to the World Economic Forum to McKinsey, Gartner and PwC, the world’s leading strategic business thinkers, consultants and researchers have been warning us for years now that technology and the demands of macro forces like climate change are going to make many jobs completely disappear. Without urgent and focused investment on reskilling, there are going to be millions of people unable to earn a basic living.

And yet, in our client conversations and through all the available data we see at LHH, it’s quite clear that we’re not taking the action needed to address this urgent problem.
A recent survey by LHH of more than 2,000 hiring decision-makers from around the world found that less than half (47 percent) believe their organisations are trying to identify their employees’ transferrable skills so that they can be reskilled to fill future job openings. And only one-third are confident in their organisation’s ability to deliver reskilling and upskilling programmes.

No matter how you cut it, those responses prove that we are just not meeting this challenge head-on.

So, why are the senior-most leaders failing in the face of the greatest human capital challenge in many generations? After considering all the possibilities and talking at length with leaders all over the world, I’ve come to believe that business executives fail to provide reskilling for their people because many of them are in desperate need of reskilling.

Many years ago, earning money as a student, I worked on an IT help desk that, on many occasions, required me to attend to the offices of C-level executives to help them with computer problems. Although some of these problems involved legitimate failures of hardware or software, in many other instances it was a case of executives not possessing even the most elementary knowledge of how to operate and utilise their technology devices.

Given that technology has a much larger role in all our lives today, the problem is just as bad, or maybe even worse now than back then.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review noted that while survey data is showing that the pandemic has accelerated the pace of digital transformation at most large companies, C-suite executives were not being asked to personally match the demands that were being placed on other levels of the leadership hierarchy.

The authors of that article analysed job postings for C-suite positions across a broad swath of Fortune 1000 companies. The study found that while digital skills were very much table stakes for chief information and marketing officers, only 60 percent of postings for CEOs and 40 percent of advertised jobs for presidents included digital skill requirements.

This data is a pretty graphic example of the disconnect many executives have to the reskilling equation. We all understand reskilling is a key to transitioning people out of redundant jobs into more sustainable jobs in the digital economy. But many of us just don’t know how to make that happen because our own skillsets are lacking and the people around us are loath to tell us how far behind we’ve fallen.

Fortunately, there are solutions we can employ. In short, it’s time for executive leaders to start changing the way we approach our jobs. It’s not just the pressing need to acquire more and better digital skills; we need to start building cultures where the people around us can provide us with honest feedback, so we know where we need to do better.

When you’re at the very top of an organisation, it’s unlikely that someone else is going to tell you that you need to up your game. You must find the motivation within yourself to identify those areas where you need to upskill or even reskill. There are some very basic things you can do to ensure you are transforming yourself at the same pace and magnitude as you are trying to change your organisations.

Get out of the echo chamber.
One of the biggest problems that C-Suite leaders have is that if they get any feedback – and many do not – it’s not honest or frank. The hierarchies in many companies ensure that the senior-most leaders are never in a position where their performance is being critiqued. As C-suite leaders, we should seek that kind of feedback and be willing to act on what we hear.

Get a coach.
I remind C-suite leaders who eschew coaching that all the best elite athletes in the world, both in team and individual sports, rely on coaches to help them perfect their technique and fortify their mindset. Coaching helps us confront and reflect on our shortcomings and focus on corrective courses.

Use a coaching mindset when leading others.
One of the greatest parts of having a relationship with a coach is that it will teach you how to use a coaching mindset to get more out of the people you lead. A coaching mindset ensures that you do as much listening as talking, and that you inspire others by showing your confidence in them. A coaching mindset, or a reverse-mentoring approach to leadership, not only helps you embrace your own skill deficit, but it will help you start conversations with other members of the executive team who might suffer from the same problem.

Future-proof your own skills to help guide your organisation.
Even though you’ve reached the C-suite, you still have a lot to learn. If you want to build an organisation that embraces change and welcomes reskilling, demonstrate that you embrace it in your own job. Take a digital literacy course, register for some Harvard short courses, make sure you are constantly reading books and news to keep up on what’s going on in the world. Show the people you lead that continuous improvement through learning is baked into the culture of the organisation at the highest levels.

There is no escaping the pressing need to reskill and upskill to meet the future of work head on. Change is coming. And business leaders must demonstrate that they are adapting to the seismic transformations that are unfolding today and those that are unknown to us now but which we will face soon.

If you want your organisation to follow you fearlessly into that future, you need to not only tell them what they need to do, you need to show them you can take your own advice. Only then will you be able to find yourself on the right side of the upskilling challenge.

This article was originally published in C-Level Magazine on May 13, 2021.
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