Once considered the ‘next big thing’, technology is now driving economic growth in all sectors. David Morris asks what this means for future leaders
Technology innovation was upending the status quo long before the arrival of COVID-19 and already changing the way we bank, shop, travel and access entertainment. For years, technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, telematics and the cloud have been slowly transforming the operations and services of forward-thinking organisations and creating new business models and customer experiences in the process. But the pandemic has forced the issue across the board.
To continue operating in 2020, even the most traditional of institutions, businesses, academic organisations and governments had to rethink how they function, what value they offer and how they can continue to deliver services and products remotely to their target markets. Technology has been central to this.
Take, for example, video conferencing; previously considered a poor man’s substitute for the real thing, it suddenly became essential for everyday business communication as many enterprises went mostly or fully remote. Demand for virtual events also spiked and Zoom became to online meetings what Google is to internet search. The US videoconferencing software company reported that revenue grew by 355% to over $663 million (£486 million) in its second quarter ending 31 July 2020.
“You don’t need to know how to code or have any deep knowledge of the technologies themselves to work in the tech sector”
Zoom has emerging competitors, too. One standout example is London-based startup Hopin, an online platform specialising in large live events and conferences with unique features that help make the experience as close to ‘IRL’ as possible. Hopin was described as the “breakout tech company of the year” by well-respected VC investor Semil Shah, an early investor in Instacart, DoorDash and HashiCorp. At the start of 2020, Hopin had just a few thousand users. By the end of the year, it boasted more than 3.5 million users and a market value of more than $2.1 billion.
Another beneficiary from the ‘stay-at-home’ edicts have been online businesses offering tools, platforms and teachers that specialise in virtual education. EdTech had been growing pre-pandemic and many schools and universities had already been using the digital services of startups to complement their offering for learners. But the switch to mass online learning catalysed the sector’s need to innovate and caught the interest of investors as a result. A recent study by Dealroom showed London to be the leading EdTech hub in Europe, appearing as the only European city in the global EdTech top 10 in terms of investment.
Other sectors have also been transformed by the pandemic; digital entertainment, ecommerce and healthcare providers have been reshaping our assumptions of how we access products and services. Something similar happened after the global financial crisis of 2008 – today, we’re seeing industries and sectors being reimagined and innovators working to build a new world order. After 2008, the focus was on asset-sharing and the growth of the gig economy, the rise of the fintech sector; innovators this time round are combining technologies to deliver better customer service and more cost-effective and intuitive solutions for businesses, individuals, healthcare systems and governments.
“The upshot of these trends is that data analytics will be a growing part of many roles across different sectors, not just technology”
This seismic shift and growing new economy brings opportunities in 2021 and beyond – and with them, new career paths, different leadership roles and a demand for new ways of thinking and operating to drive business – and your own – success.
So, what do you need to know to excel as a leader in the new digital economy? Here are six tips to get you in the right mindset.
Most businesses founded after the global financial crisis are ‘digital first’ on-demand platforms, built on a SaaS stack and powered through the cloud. Through a range of technologies, they’ve reimagined how services can be delivered, how customers can be engaged, and how workers are employed.
An increasing number of these firms are now unicorns and employ hundreds if not thousands of people. Their organisational structures are often quite different to those of non-digital pre-internet companies: there’s a much bigger focus on product management, product marketing, and growth roles working alongside the more technical engineering roles and client-facing sales roles. One position that is emerging more within growing technology firms is the Chief of Staff – this position can be seen as an extension of the C-level team (usually the CEO) and can oversee internal operations and drive specific business-critical projects.
But one thing’s for sure – you don’t need to know how to code or have any deep technical knowledge to work in the tech sector. However, you should learn the basics of how the products work and be able to answer this straightforward question: How does the company make money? Most of our students who secure jobs in technology after their degree don’t have a technology background but have experience in sectors like consulting, financial services, and consumer goods. What’s key is having a true interest in how technology is evolving and the business opportunities being enabled by the latest developments.
You should also be comfortable with data and analytics and have some experience using tool like SQL, Python and Excel – which brings me neatly to my next point.
Statistics and data visualisation dashboards became part of most people’s daily lives last year when COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations and deaths started to be closely tracked and monitored. Even traditional organisations and businesses are moving towards a data-driven approach in their product, commercial and marketing strategies for maximum business impact.
The upshot of these trends is that data analytics will be a growing part of many roles across different sectors, not just technology. This doesn’t mean you need to be a data scientist to work in these fields, but there will be some expectation that you understand how to find and read relevant data sets and communicate your insights effectively to influence strategic decision-making. This is an area the School fully embraced with the 2019 launch of its Masters in Analytics and Management (MAM) programme, which helps create a path for early career students looking to move into data heavy roles.
In the digital era, it may come as a surprise to hear that those with the best interpersonal skills – a real sense of empathy and compassion – will be most successful and will make the best leaders. Remote working, desired for a long time by some, is likely to outlast COVID-19 and become part of the operational norm for many progressive businesses.
This will lead to the growth of distributed workforces, possibly across countries, as organisations expand their horizons to access the best talent. Leading effective teams in this environment will require a different skillset to that which some leaders became known for in the 1980s and 1990s. Authenticity, empathy and listening are going to be key. Future business models will tend to have flatter hierarchies and multi-generational teams, with greater diversity of race, culture, ethnicity and sexuality. The most successful leaders will understand how to get the best out of this diverse workforce.
When looking at a job description, be it with a startup or large global digital business, it’s likely that you’ll see the requirement ‘be comfortable with ambiguity’. Dealing with ambiguity and being adaptable are essential traits for startup or scale-up employees. Business and financial targets can be ambitious; VC investors are demanding, and the company might be aiming for an initial public offering (IPO) and be under pressure to meet certain objectives in advance of the planned stock market admission.
“Dealing with ambiguity and being adaptable are essential traits for startup or scale-up employees”
There’s likely, then, to be a need to make a lot happen over a short period of time. In addition, these companies understand they must evolve and be dynamic as their markets change, and are continuously tweaking their product, service, marketing and even company structure to be in line with their target audience. Every department will have an agile and iterative approach to their model, operations and processes – which differs from traditional corporate culture. Roles tend to be cross-functional; they evolve as the company systems and structures evolve. Have an open mind (a growth mindset), be curious and embrace the ambiguity.
Another question we’re asked in the Career Centre is how to identify startups to apply to. With so many options in terms of size and sector, it can be difficult to know where to start. One way of approaching this is to do your due diligence. Think about your aspirations and how the company you join can help you achieve those. Some of the questions you could investigate include:
What size company do you want to work for? What sector interests you? Where do you want to be based? What stage of funding is the company at? Do you want to work for a pre-seed startup looking for product fit or a scale-up looking to expand into new markets? Who are the investors? Are they leading VCs or Angels, AND have they made follow-on investments into the company? Who’s the leadership team? What are their backgrounds? What’s the company culture like? What does the press say about the company and their products? Have you used their products?
An excellent model for this kind of due diligence was put together by LBS alumnus Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen MBA2007, following his experience working in Silicon Valley and being an early employee of Uber and Dropbox before moving into the venture capital space.
The tech sector encompasses many different sub-sectors and different-sized companies from small startups to large multinationals. Fintech, healthtech, EdTech and ecommerce are all being rewired by technology. Then of course, there are the companies that focus on the technology plumbing that facilitates the growth of the digital economy.
“We’re seeing industries and sectors being reimagined and innovators working to build a new world order”
The great thing about this new world order is the proliferation of career opportunities for ambitious young leaders. So, think about your values and what drives you; a simple way to identify which sectors or technologies interest you is to think about which tech blogs you read or which tech news stories draw you in. Is it blogs on cryptocurrencies, foodtech or gaming?
Many startups today are mission-driven and will have values aligned with environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles. In addition, the newer platform organisations are likely to understand marketing and customer engagement – so, if customer engagement is your passion, look for an organisation that shares that ethos. Think about whether you have a thirst for learning and try a number of different roles – if this appeals, a startup could be a good fit.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen a growing number of London Business School alumni progress their careers outside the traditional sectors of investment banking and management consultancy. While just 7% of the MBA 2011 cohort sourced employment in the tech sector, the figure rose to 28% for the MBA 2020 class. In 2012, 15% of MBA students pursued internships in technology businesses, and in 2021, that number tripled.
Back in 2016, I led the creation of the first dedicated tech-sector team in the LBS Career Centre and since then we’ve developed partnerships and collaborations with many of the innovator firms that have emerged following the financial crisis, holding regular networking and recruiting events with our community. Last year, we worked closely with incubators and venture builders like Wayra, Antler and Zinc to secure projects with startups. In the end, we secured over 50 projects for our students to support these companies on strategic challenges to help them through the pandemic.
As the pandemic accelerated the demand for virtual working, we partnered with the Tech & Media Club (TMC) leadership team to establish a dedicated Technology Steering Group chaired by Giri Kesavan (MBA2021 and President of TMC), to bring together key individuals from around the School including faculty, alumni, and students. Their role is to help develop the School’s offering in the technology space. A major outcome of the group has seen the introduction of a Technology & Analytics Concentration on our MBA and the inclusion of more data science training, including SQL, Tableau and Excel. The new concentration also opens up courses in key areas like Analytics, Product Management, Marketing, and Data Science.
Other opportunities we offer students looking to connect with industry leaders in the technology space include:
This two-day open house event launched by LBS alumna and Zinc co-founder Ella Goldner MBA2011 is now run by the LBS Career Centre in partnership with the LBS Entrepreneurship Club. It offers aspiring tech-sector leaders, both LBS and non-LBS, the chance to connect with some of the most exciting companies in London’s technology and innovation ecosystem.
This joint venture between seed investor Seedcamp and LBS Career Centre connects MBA and Masters in Finance (MiF) students with promising startups from Seedcamp’s portfolio to help them work on some of their strategic and tactical challenges.
This student-run event by the TMC showcases insights from those working in product roles in tech. Taking place over three and a half days, it has previously featured LBS alumni from the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Google, Hopin and Depop. Read more here.
Set up by the TMC in conjunction with the Career Centre and designed for students looking to make a career switch from a non-technical background into the tech sector, this programme offers students alumni mentors, workshops and training. Discover more here.
International Treks to Technology Hubs
In partnership with the TMC, we run various international treks to connect our students with international technology hubs like Silicon Valley, New York, Dublin and Berlin. New virtual treks are being organised for Asia, Africa and India, which will allow students to meet with companies from across the technology sector to learn more about the latest trends and insights in different regions.