New research from The Economist Intelligence Unit reveals the skills and experience that tomorrow’s business leaders will need to succeed.

Written by The Economist Intelligence Unit

The organisational impact of digital disruption may still be unfolding, but it is certainly on the agenda for many companies. Indeed, 64% of UK business leaders believe their organisation has so far adapted to digital disruption successfully. 

A less-explored question is how digital disruption will impact the careers of individual business leaders. New research from The Economist Intelligence Unit, sponsored by Salesforce, provides some answers.

Based on a survey of sales, IT, marketing and customer service executives and managers in Western Europe, as well as in-depth interviews, the research reveals that the merging of corporate functions in light of digital disruption is blurring what were once clear paths to professional success and leadership roles.

And it suggests that the individuals who thrive in this new environment will be those who take advantage of these blurred boundaries to broaden their experience, grow their networks, and nurture their talent for cross-functional leadership.


The need for close collaboration

Clearly defined functional silos have, for many years, provided ambitious professionals with a defined path to the top: to become the chief marketing officer, for example, one had to specialise in the technical, managerial and strategic capabilities associated with marketing.

However, in the age of digital disruption – defined for our purposes as ‘transformation caused by the emergence of new digital technology and the business models it allows,’ – these functional silos are a liability.

For one thing, the pace of innovation demands quick and iterative collaboration, which requires cross-functional teams working in close quarters. Secondly, the fact that customer relationships are now largely mediated through digital channels means that the difference between marketing, sales, customer service and IT, for example, is not as pronounced as it used to be.

“The whole concept of working in silos is no longer relevant or viable,” says Justine Haworth, global head of digital engagement at global bank HSBC, who was intervie

wed for the research. “Actually, customers expect and need us to respond to their needs very quickly across all channels.”

As a result, the functions are merging. The most pronounced overlap is between marketing and IT, the survey reveals: 49% of marketing leaders say their department’s responsibilities have expanded to overlap with those of the IT department ‘to a great degree’. 

In turn, the role of departmental leaders is changing: 70% of survey respondents say their role is merging with that of peers in other functions.

This means traditional career development plans may no longer apply. Nearly half (48%) of respondents agree that ‘the blurring of departmental boundaries makes it harder to plan my professional progression’. Over a third (35%) are concerned about the impact of digital technology on their career prospects. And many more agree that the skills required of leaders are changing, in light of digital disruption.


An evolving skillset

Some of these skills relate to disruption itself: for example, 71% agree that ‘innovation’ will become ‘significantly’ or ‘somewhat’ more important in the near future, and 68% say the same of ‘change management’. But others reflect the changing shape of the organisation: 66% of respondents say ‘managing across functions’ will grow in importance, and 65% say ‘internal networking’ will. Among UK respondents, the skill deemed to be the most likely to increase in importance is ‘the ability to motivate staff’ (78%). 

For George Zarkadakis, digital lead at insurance services provider Willis Towers Watson and an interviewee for the research, being a digital leader requires the courage to step over conventional boundaries, combined with the empathy required to maintain trust while doing so. “You will need to break things. You will need to deal with resistance. You’ll have to push through walls,” he says. “But as well as courage, you’ll need to be able to create trust, so therefore having a high degree of social intelligence is vital.”


Skilling up

So how will today’s leaders develop the skills they will need tomorrow? Training is the obvious choice: 42% of respondents expect to develop the skills required by digital disruption through internal training, and 40% through external training. But others see the need to broaden their experience: 39% believe management experience in other industries will play an important role in their professional development, and 37% say experience in other departments.

This is reflected in respondents’ career plans: 74% believe they are at least somewhat likely to take a leadership position in a different department within their current employer in the next 3 years, while 62% expect to expand their role significantly to include responsibility for other departments.


This shows that while the blurring of functional silos presents a professional development challenge, by making career trajectories less straightforward, it also offers an opportunity to address that challenge by gaining cross-functional experience.

Taking that opportunity may not just be a good career move; it may even be a necessity. The majority of UK respondents (64%) agree that “business leaders can no longer expect to have a successful career with experience in just one department”. 


Download the full report to gain actionable insights in to how digital disruption is affecting your career path: Building Leaders without Silos