Design Thinking Isn’t Enough When Hiring Executive Team Members

There have been perhaps no greater changes to the executive search industries than those brought about by the rapid evolution of the internet. This is because the exponential growth of the digital economy has fundamentally shaped the nature of business and, as such, the executive search for corporate management has had to pivot in order to accommodate the needs of businesses working within the digital economy today. Unlike the early days of e-commerce — think The Shopping Channel — expertise in the digital economy has become non-negotiable. Early e-commerce was, in its own right, an industry. The only people who needed expertise in those arenas were the executives running those shopping channels, or those representing companies that could benefit from industry-specific exposure. This isn’t true today. Whether or not one is selling luxury bags, pulp and paper, or running an international manufacturing pipeline, C-suite executives need to be well-versed in the technologies of the digital economy. 

Every industry today is touched by the digital economy. In order to lead a company responsibly, C-level candidates must be able to navigate that landscape strategically. This is especially relevant as baby boomer C-suite executives enter a healthy retirement age; the C-suite landscape is about to become much more dynamic and heterogenous both in terms of demographics and high value skills. Gone are the days of a “high-level” versus “applied” level of knowledge and business processes; in order to strategize and implement company plans, C-suite executives need to be able to ask the right questions.

In the past three years, according to the Gartner TalentNeuron, which is itself fed by big data analysis and machine learning, the desire for hard technological skills in executives has skyrocketed. For example, demand for C-suite skills in artificial intelligence has seen an increase of 160% since 2015. Data science follows with an increased demand of 140%, which is followed by machine learning techniques at 93%.[1] This data all but certifies that C-suite recruitment is on an unprecedented trajectory. Today, more than ever, what good is design thinking without the hard skills to implement concepts?

A 2014 article from McKinsey & Company asks the natural and critical follow up question: “can software substitute for the responsibilities of senior managers in their roles at the top of today’s biggest corporations?”[2] In some ways, certainly. Undoubtedly, machines trained on thousands of pieces of data can track trends and change better than humans can and, by extension, can theoretically arrive at better, more sound assumptions than people do.

“Today, machine-learning algorithms are actually as good as or better than humans at many things that we think of as being uniquely human capabilities,” said Jeremy Howard in an interview with Rik Kirkland. “I think people are massively underestimating the impact … of the combination of data plus modern analytical techniques. The reason for that is very clear: these techniques are growing exponentially in capability, and the human brain just can’t conceive of that.” [2]

However, there is no risk of C-suite obsolescence. “Machine learning and computers aren’t terribly good at creative thinking, so the idea that the rewards of most jobs and people will be based on their ability to think creatively is probably right,” says Andrew Goldbloom.[2] And while machine learning is on an exponential path of improvement, the laws and regulations that govern our society are predicated on human intention and action. This means that, at least under the capitalist system, people need to lead companies. But it is integral that senior managers are able to efficiently harness this technology, lest their companies fall behind—and quickly. 

“I can’t think of a corner of the business world (or a discipline within it) that is immune to the astonishing technological progress we’re seeing,” says Andrew McAfee to Kirkland. “That clearly includes being at the top of a large global enterprise.”[2]

Says Howard, “there is no organization that shouldn’t be thinking about leveraging these approaches, because either you do — in which case you’ll probably surpass the competition — or somebody else will,” Howard says. “And by the time the competition has learned to leverage data really effectively, it’s probably going to be too late for you to try to catch up.” [2] 

The fix is fundamental: hiring tech-savvy candidates that are capable of leading a company through the Second Machine Age is a must.

1 Top 10 Emerging Skills for the C-Suite. //  Accessed 31 Oct. 2019.
2 Artificial Intelligence Meets the C-Suite | McKinsey.  Accessed 31 Oct. 2019.