While the world is progressing through the pandemic, observers are trying to figure out the coherence between the ‘new normal’ and evolving uncertainties. The world is trying to come to terms with operating and living with the virus, as we await highly effective treatments and vaccines.

Businesses have been impacted quite significantly due to the spread of Covid-19. Many of them have had to scale down operations to adjust to sinking demand, lockdowns, shifting consumer behaviour, and spending. A recent survey we conducted found that the pandemic impacted most companies across sectors. Organisations have been forced to innovate on new ways of operating for stakeholders across the spectrum to stay relevant.

Our survey also highlighted the disruptions in business areas like operations, supply chain, finance, and hiring. The trend indicated that the companies would start hiring once the pandemic situation eases. During this period, it is extremely important for organisations to gauge future talent requirements and understand the impact of a strategic, differentiated hiring approach.

Organisations which are proactive on strategic leadership acquisition tend to be a few steps ahead of the competition. Increasingly, we notice three critical game-changer areas of strategic leadership acquisition for businesses in India. The areas which emerged from our survey, discussions with clients, and market reviews are strategy, digitisation, and supply chain.

The demand for highly competent and experienced leadership during increasingly uncertain and virtual environments become even higher. The change in the work environment and employment pattern has clearly resulted in a need for advanced leadership with agility and ability to lead effectively through uncertainty in a virtual environment, with high trust and emotional intelligence.

Three potential game-changer roles

The need for stakeholder-focussed boards and executives has never been higher. Based on the areas observed, we think three leadership roles would stand out and give companies a distinct advantage ahead of competition—chief digital officer, chief strategy officer, and head of supply chain. These roles and functions have existed in some organisations but with the change in context due to the pandemic, organisations may find increased value in revisiting these roles and reassessing leadership talent for the new environment. We also expect that these leaders will be more active in the boardroom, bringing in their diverse experience and decision-making skills for expert advice and meaningful contributions.

Chief digital officer

Organisations are shifting towards digitalisation with new work arrangements, unveiling distinctive challenges for chief digital officers (CDOs) and the organisation’s function. The CDO holds the responsibility of leading the business’s digital transformation initiative while working closely with the CEO and leadership team to help create the response to the crisis. The current pandemic environment has created a great opportunity for CDOs to demonstrate agility and adaptability by reshaping the digital environment for businesses to survive and thrive.

The current crisis has also compelled companies to test new channels and communications to deliver improved customer experience. CDOs need to help institute a combination of technology and talent capabilities to understand in real time what’s working and what’s not.

The role of the CDO will be more meaningful in the new context than ever. It’s no more considered a technical function working in a silo with limited scope but rather, a business role with a larger mandate with tangible impact to revenue. The CDO has to deeply understand the various elements of the business and digitally integrate the internal and external ecosystems stakeholder systems seamlessly, thereby providing value to all stakeholders and preparing the organisation to navigate through disruptions.

Chief strategy officer

The strategy function has evolved and attracted many former management consultants into corporate jobs. This role is also a relatively a new addition to the leadership team. The chief strategy officer (CSO) helps the organisation understand major and evolving trends, foresee beyond the obvious, find ‘blue oceans’, navigate uncertainty, and enable the business to thrive in an uncertain world. CSOs play a critical role in managing effectively through a downturn and turning challenges into opportunities. They ideally establish and work through an effective strategy management office to plan, communicate, translate, align strategy, develop scorecards, coordinate, and track progress across the organisation. CSOs also play a significant role in leading discussions on risk assessment and business continuity planning. In an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, it becomes imperative to assess risk. Organisations will need to do more reality checks through honest and robust conversations about risk and preparedness. For the CSO role to be effective, the board and CEO also have to be clear on expectations from the role.

Chief supply chain officer

The current pandemic forced many enterprises to pivot sharply as they struggled with supply chain disruptions. With geopolitical shifts, for many organisations (especially in manufacturing), supply chains have become a major topic of focus. According to Bain & Company, companies that invest in supply chain resilience reduce product development cycles by 40%-60%. By optimising operations and having flexible supply chain processes in place, companies can expand output capacity by 15%-25%. This emphasises the increasing importance and complexity for leaders in supply chain management. Supply chain leaders who are better prepared than others to mitigate the Covid-19 impact have diversified their supply chains from a geographic perspective to reduce the supply-side risks from any one country or region. They have also reduced their reliance on any one supplier and proactively revisited inventory strategy to manage disruption. The foresight to sense an environment and invest in supply chain solutions to realise, respond, and even predict supply chain issues will help leaders bring their organisations to the forefront.

While some or all of these roles may have existed within organisations, the pandemic situation has led to a new context for these key leadership roles as well.

Continuous evolution

We are already noticing that these areas and leadership roles are receiving increasing attention from CEOs and boards. The urgency in environment and need to resolve related problems are hastening this process. In the new normal, many organisations may also need to reassess their organisational structures, existing leadership capabilities and talent pools (internally and externally), with a view to succession planning. Some companies may realise that they may need to rebuild or transform these functions in the new world.

The global perspective

We are seeing increasing demands globally and across almost all sectors, for leaders who understand the digital conversion of businesses. Initiatives in digitisation, robotics, and automation are helping businesses become more efficient and increase their market share. Many organisations are looking outside their own industries for digital talent. For example, as part of transformation and improving their digital footprint, a large company in the shipping industry hires leaders with digital competencies from other sectors like telecom. With respect to supply chain, companies with facilities in other countries are implementing digital solutions to track, manage closely, and increase the speed of operations. A leader must understand all the interconnectors in depth and how to apply them effectively.

Within an organisation, when these areas gel together and leaders work closely in an aligned manner, the potential to lead and thrive in the new normal grows exponentially.

Views are personal. Sripad Rao and Ashwini Prakash are managing partners at Stanton Chase; Eapen is a partner at Stanton Chase.

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