Egon Zehnder
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The telecom industry has undergone a massive digital transformation and will continue to evolve as new technologies emerge and digital executives drive new business strategies. Chief Digital Officers, Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Analytics Officers and other digital executives are playing prominent roles within organizations, but many of these executives face significant challenges in these new roles. Not only are many digital executives in these positions for the first time, but they have the pressure of helping their companies adapt to a rapidly changing environment while simultaneously overcoming internal barriers they may not have expected. How can the telecommunications industry continue to scale its technologies and find and nurture the talent it needs to succeed? The largest mobile event in the world—MWC Barcelona — offered some fresh insights for digital talent in the industry.

The 3 Types of Digital Expertise Needed

At MWC keynote on the first day of the event, Singtel CEO Chua Sock Koong detailed how it harnessed technology and innovation to transform itself into a digital powerhouse. Singtel employed a three-pronged approach:

  • Transform Connectivity: The focus was on using Robotics, IoT, digital services and the like; helping out in strategic initiatives like smart nations by investing in 5G in strategic markets.
  • Create partnerships to build a regional digital ecosystem. Singtel worked to establish new businesses through partnerships in mobile payment, gaming, analytics and utilizing the cloud.
  • Develop or acquire new standalone businesses. Newly created businesses focused on adtech, cyber security, data analytics, media streaming and other key areas. These businesses can have a broader global scope and do not need to be tied to the core base market. (For example, Singtel’s new businesses are much more globally focused than its core Asian base.)

These three components of transformation can serve as inspiration or as an example that other telecom companies can follow.

Each of those transformation components, however, requires a variety of skills sets that likely would not be found in a single leader. A Chief Digital Officer, a Chief Information Officer, a Chief Technology Officer, or other digital officer cannot revolutionize a business on his or her own — though that is sometimes the expectation. Each of these layers of transformation requires a different type of leader, and companies must select their talent based on where they are in the transformation journey and their specific needs.

Is CDO the Right Title?

Egon Zehnder organized a breakfast event in MWC 2019 and around 20 top executives of the industry came together to discuss the situation of CDOs in the sector in line with the Global CDO survey results; conducted by Egon Zehnder. As one of the key outcomes of this session, the participants didn’t believe in one “generic” CDO title. Participants were argumentative about even the digital strategy since digital is supposed to be part of the overall company strategy. Titles are particularly important in newly created roles such as Chief Digital Officer, as they can identify a leader’s specific area of focus (potentially within those major transformation areas we identified earlier). The complexity of the job has led some telecoms to become creative with the titles, such as CEO of Digital Life (in the case of Singtel) or Customer Experience Officer or Chief Analytics Officer, which underscore findings from Egon Zehnder’s soon-to-be-released Chief Digital Officer survey, where CDOs were vocal about the title not reflecting the true scope of their role within in the company.

Learning on the Job

Many digital officers are holding these types of roles for the first time, and expectations and reality do not always align. In our survey of CDOs, 38 percent said the job was very or fairly different than what they expected. There’s also the matter of how much time is spent executing the job they were hired for versus working internally to align business units and ensure understanding about the digital changes to come. In our survey, 54 percent of CDOs said they spent more time evangelizing and educating than they did executing.

Listening to the Next Generation

Digital executives today must also be open to listening to the voices of tomorrow to ensure their efforts are part of building a more connected future. At MWC, a panel of young ambassadors took the stage to give attendees a glimpse into what digital natives are seeking as today’s consumers and how they will change the telecom industry as tomorrow’s leaders. As one young panelist put it, “We kids are the people who will be living in this world for the next 75 years, so it’s up to us how we want to use, make, and shape the technology around us to revolutionize the world as we know it."

The Digital Talent You Need

Transformation is complex, and ensuring your telecom has the right talent is crucial. Management—and the board—must take a hard look at what the end goal of digitalizing the company is and adjust and monitor their expectations of digital officers based upon those goals and the individual’s expertise. Your digital team cannot be a single person; rather it’s a core unit of your business composed of individuals with specific capabilities that can work together to drive real change.

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