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The 2018 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona had an optimism that set it apart from the gatherings of recent years. This was largely due to advances in making 5G a reality and the rapid evolution of the array of businesses that depend on a robust mobile sector. AI, IoT, self-driving cars, blockchain, smart cities–all of these endeavors are much further along than they were a year ago, quickly moving from curiosities to becoming full-blown industries. Perhaps the most telling sign of the energy within the space was the large number of executives in attendance from outside of mobile industry. It is now much easier for the mobile industry to embrace the shift from stand- alone entity to being the connective tissue that allows other verticals to operate.

There is also a greater awareness of the role of mobile technologies in addressing social challenges exacerbated by the move to digitalization. The industry is creating banking apps for the two billion people without bank accounts and a digital ID system for the billion people who lack government-issued identification. Mobile firms are also tackling problems that long predate the technological revolution, such as improved access to food and education.

There is, in other words, no shortage for mobile industry to add value to our increasingly connected lives, particularly at the enterprise level. Much of the technological advances of tomorrow are predicated on connectivity that is reliable, fast, secure and available. The sustainable business model around providing that connectivity remains elusive and capex requirements persist, but there is greater confidence that these hurdles can be overcome– provided industry leaders can maintain a solution-oriented and collaborative focus within and outside of their organizations.

Because these competencies depend more on personal characteristics than industry specifics, they afford the opportunity to cast a wider net in hiring. Your next senior executive may come from an industry you hadn’t previously considered or be an internal candidate that might have been passed over in an earlier time. But more agility in candidates requires more agility in the human resources function if it is to effectively identify and evaluate candidates from broader pools, whether internal or external.

Companies must also retool their development programs to provide opportunities to foster innovation, adapt quickly to unfamiliar surroundings and build partnerships with external organizations. Simply putting a rising executive in charge of larger teams will not reinforce the competencies needed by mobile companies today.

This environment places a premium on leadership and leadership development that requires boards to think differently about the competencies needed for success at each level of the organization. In order to promote a dialogue on the role of talent management today, the Egon Zehnder Telecommunications Practice hosted a breakfast discussion during the Congress for senior executives of mobile operators and the industry partners who support them. Three key themes emerged:

Talent Must Be Assessed and Developed Differently.

In an earlier day, operational excellence was a sufficient benchmark; today it’s merely the opening ante (albeit a significant one). Leaders now must have a wide-ranging curiosity about other industries and society at large and have the agility needed to navigate unforeseen opportunities and setbacks. They must also be able to create and sustain a culture of innovation, acting more as an orchestra conductor than a field marshal.

Retention Becomes Harder–and More Essential.

The importance of competencies that transcend industries and the breakdown of industry silos means that while there is a wider talent pool, there also is a larger number of talent competitors. Many of those competitors have advantages over mobile operators in the talent market, with more nimble organizations, richer equity packages and headquarters in global hubs rather than regional markets. Winning this competition requires investing heavily in retention, having clearly articulated career paths and establishing a narrative around the company and the candidates that continues to evolve and stay compelling.

Talent Management Now Is a Job For the Entire Organization.

Recruiting, developing and retaining top talent needs to be a core responsibility of all senior leaders of the organization. While the chief human resources officer needs to define the talent management framework and establish the necessary culture throughout the organization, the rest of the senior executive team needs to be responsible for clear KPIs of talent management and succession planning in light of evolving competency requirements. This “all hands on deck” approach to talent management will allow the mobile industry to more thoroughly develop internal talent and be er compete for top-tier executives against all comers so that it has the leadership teams it needs to meet the challenges ahead.

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