The ASX 200 is transforming; how future business leaders can keep up with digital change

By David Jones, Senior Managing Director of Robert Half Asia Pacific

Credit: ID 118627933 © Tomert |

Companies all over Australia are navigating an era of digital transformation as more and more leaders recognise that new technologies are key to improving operational efficiency, reducing risks, and offering better experiences to customers. Today, staying relevant is about having the ability to keep ahead of the curve by embracing and adopting technology at an appropriate speed while safeguarding organisations from the increasingly sophisticated cyber-security threats that come with it.

With maintaining competitiveness and security front of mind, it’s no surprise, then, that more companies are seeking CEOs who can take proactive steps to drive business goals and strategies in an increasingly digitised environment.

According to the annual CEO Tracker published by specialised recruitment firm Robert Half, CEO churn in the ASX 200 has reached a three-year high at 22 per cent turnover – reflecting the 43 new CEOs that entered the list this year. As the face of the ASX 200 changes fast, the research by Robert Half shows there’s growing demand for CEOs with a background in technology and an aptitude for navigating risk and compliance – increasing by 3 per cent compared to last year. Meanwhile, the number of CEOs with a traditional background in finance has fallen at a faster rate of 4 per cent.

The importance of digitally literate leaders to companies across all industries is quickly becoming clear, but there’s no doubt rising demand for CEOs with a background in technology is also being driven by the increasing proportion of tech companies entering the ASX 200. This year, 3 of the 16 companies that were new to the ASX 200 were int eh Information Tech sector, representing a shifting playing field for Australia’s future CEOs.

What it takes to be a digitally savvy CEO

On the path to an increasingly digitised future, success as a CEO won’t hinge on developing proficiency in specific skills such as programming, big data, analytics or even cyber-security. Instead, effective leadership is about knowing how to steer a company and its people towards new opportunities through a digital-first mindset.

In the current climate, CEOs who are aware of new technologies and have a vision for how they could be implemented across all business functions are most likely to make informed strategic decisions that enhance the bottom line. What’s more, nurturing workforces and communicating with stakeholders about business issues through a digital lens will be essential for successfully facilitating digital transformation. Specifically, all initiatives to drive uptake and leverage new technology will be bolstered by leaders who can translate complex concepts into plain business language and clearly model expected strategic outcomes. 

A focus on strong communication skills is paramount for distinguishing digitally literate leaders, but CEOs must also demonstrate they have other soft skills to identify and tackle any cultural or operational barriers that could impede transformation. While they must be able to clearly define the company’s mission and values and how they are aligned with the company’s digital goals, leaders will sometimes be required to make tough calls around human resources and organisational restructuring.

Role-modelling mindsets and behaviour, persistence towards objectives and focusing on developing and training top talent will also be key to driving cultural change and building a digital-first workforce.   

A real aptitude for technology also goes beyond a CEO’s experience, knowledge and awareness within the existing landscape. As technology rapidly develops and its application to business and operational processes widens, future leaders will need to demonstrate to companies that they can stay relevant in the role. Consequently, companies will be looking for a range of personal qualities such as agility, adaptability to change and, perhaps most importantly, a constant drive to learn.

Aside from experience in technology, digital literacy and a motivation to learn and develop, it’s also important for CEOs to know how to surround themselves with the right team. Digital transformation will be most effectively lead through a collaborative approach which brings together specific technology experts such as Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and Chief Security Officers (CSOs) and other senior executives and transformative leaders such as change managers.

How technology professionals can position themselves for the top job

Traditionally, professionals work their way up the organisational hierarchy over many years with CEO-ship the ultimate reward for gaining extensive experience and demonstrating loyalty. But today, companies are quickly shifting to a more dynamic approach and mindset when it comes to how they determine the suitability of leaders.

While the Robert Half CEO Tracker found that well over one-third (39 per cent) of current ASX 200 CEOs have been promoted to the role from outside the business, companies are also doing more internally to identify and support future leaders by pushing the boundaries of responsibility and testing leadership potential. There’s no doubt, on the path to becoming a CEO, longevity of experience and traditional methods of training and coaching are making way for more proactive professionals who embrace hands-on experiences and prove their skills.   

To develop the skills of a digital leader, it will be important to gain exposure to real life challenges while taking every opportunity to make valuable contributions to an organisation. Consequently, aspiring leaders must think outside the scope of their core role functions, occasionally stepping outside their comfort zone by volunteering for new challenges, offering solutions and demonstrating preparedness to take calculated risks.

With the rapid pace of digital change, professionals in the technology space are in a strong position to seek out new opportunities that build and show the type of dynamic capabilities companies are looking for.

As technology becomes increasingly important to global businesses across all industries, working internationally or undertaking collaborative projects could offer technology professionals exposure to new people and different ways of thinking. Most importantly, these experiences could encourage a greater appreciation for wider business objectives which will be essential for driving company-wide transformation and reshaping future workplace cultures.     

Networking and forming mentoring partnerships inside and outside the business could also be invaluable to developing as a future CEO. Strong professional relationships are often an effective way to learn from other people’s experiences, challenges, ideas and insights – all the elements necessary to cultivate instinctive leadership capabilities.

To maintain their position in a future market, digital-first leaders are becoming a must-have for companies. As the ASX 200 continues to experience an influx of new technology companies and leaders with a background in technology, it will be essential for anyone with their sights set on the CEO job to understand exactly what makes a digital leader and how to become one.  

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