Looking back at our 2021 predictions for Digital Technology Leadership

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Early last year we published an article in which we predicted the trends that would drive the Digital and Technology agenda in 2021: Blog: Technology is pointing to positive progress in 2021

Recently, Partners within our Digital & Technology Leadership search practice – Jean-Pierre Green and John Smith – got together to discuss how the year unfolded, and whether those predictions materialised in these extraordinary times.

Our prediction: Increased awareness of the role of digital technology

The pandemic has undoubtedly shone the light on the role of technology within business and forced genuine change, rather than change for change’s sake. CIOs now increasingly talk about “pushing on open doors” and note the significant acceptance, and increased cadence of decision making, change and transformation.

Tech leaders now find themselves around the top table as legitimate business partners, emphasising how capitalising on the role of technology can accelerate change and deliver value to the business.

This means that CIOs are now under the spotlight, and those who perhaps were not excelling in their role, have been forced to improve their performance. This has also highlighted new opportunities within the industry.

Technology has undeniably played a huge role in ‘disaster recovery’ and has been fundamental in enabling businesses to bounce back from the pandemic. It is now crucial to look at the distant horizon and push forward on longer-term Digital Transformation to enable  the unlocking of sustained commercial value and new income streams. This means retaining the transformation mindset that everyone was forced to adopt during the pandemic and using it in a non-pandemic context.

Our prediction: CIOs will build on their position as people who arguably have the best enterprise-wide knowledge of their businesses

There is a general trend towards the CIO role being elevated and moving from being perceived as a support function towards becoming a value driver, and potentially a value gamechanger; playing a key role in influencing horizontally across the whole business.

We are also moving away from the term “digital strategy.” The “digital” piece is now truly absorbed into business strategy, rather than being a separate entity as digital and business strategy converge. As a result, the CTO and CIO have become more implicit to the leadership of the business.

Our prediction: Acknowledging the importance of ‘good leadership’ in Digital Technology

It is essential that businesses strive to employ strong leaders who can get the most out of their teams in this very competitive market where talent is in short supply.

It’s now generally accepted that the success of the CTO/CIO comes down to their inspirational leadership qualities, stakeholder engagement, influence and general softer skills. 

These skills drive their ability to create buy-in, take people on a journey and be real agents for change. The leadership role that the CIO/CTO needs to play is highly significant in leading successful transformation.

Our prediction: A continuation of hybrid working challenges

The pandemic forced businesses to rethink the way they worked, which opened up opportunities to utilise talent from further afield.

One of the main difficulties of hybrid working though, is in finding the right balance. Many businesses are still discovering what the right mix is, to continue to get the best out of their teams.

Being able to use core management skills, even in a remote setting, and understanding the challenges of hybrid working is key.

Many people have referenced the difficulties in getting the balance right between those working in the office and those dialling in, and making the dynamics between them work.

But the trend towards remote working has certainly created significant opportunities and has widened the talent pool. People are now able to think more laterally and attract diverse talent from a broader radius or even internationally.

Our prediction: Increase discussion and focus on D&I

The diversity and inclusion agenda has come on leaps and bounds throughout 2021, and many organisations are now far better educated as a result.

Many of our clients are notably more open to the time it takes to approach a more diverse search, and equally the flexibility needed from their side to ensure a wider talent pool is assessed.

But whilst diversity has been a big theme, we have also had the opportunity to continue to support our clients around the inclusion part of the jigsaw. As important as diversity is, inclusivity is also key, and it is crucial to know the difference – especially when considering staff retention.

Additional themes that stood out for us in 2021

  • Growth in the data space
    This has been an ongoing trend for a while, but in 2021, data was even more visible in terms of governance, quality and insights. A number of people, when discussing digital strategies, will say it all starts with the data and the first place you need to look is data transformation.
    In 2021, enhanced use of data, AI and business intelligence meant that this data could be used to not just  look back at what had happened, but in more of a predictive way to impact decision making across an organisation.
  • An increase in demand for CPO and CTO roles
    We saw a real uptake of hiring activity throughout 2021 in terms of attractive opportunities at a C-suite and leadership level. But within that, there has been an emphasis on the CPO and CTO in digital product terms, particularly in mid-cap, high growth PE-backed organisations in the digital native space, which has seen huge growth. Salaries and pay packages can be quite punchy for those CTO roles where business value is driven by technology and digital products. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a CTO in a small fast-growing tech led company to command a salary comparable to that of a FTSE100 CIO.
  • A more architectural lens has been applied to digital
    The technology architecture and how digital works across organisations has been a key part of conversations in 2021. This also impacts how it is seen across a business as being a real agent for value and change.


What’s next for 2022? Look out for our next blog in the series where we will discuss our predictions for digital technology for the year ahead.