What’s Powering the Demand for ‘Digital Directors’?

Jason Baumgarten Spencer Stuart

Jason is a Partner with Spencer Stuart in the Technology, Media & Telecommunications, CEO and Board practices. We catch up with him to understand the current supply and demand in board recruitment. This interview is part of our Next Gen Q&A Series.

Are you seeing young directors being recruited for their digital skill sets?

Yes, earlier tenure directors are being recruited for digital skills ranging from business model transformation to digital marketing savvy. This is a seven- to 10-year trend that’s not slowing down.

What’s powering this trend?

In many ways, it’s a supply issue. The traditional supply side for board members is dwindling. Fewer public company CEOs and fewer experienced board members are available. Couple this with the disruption that’s happening across every industry. These factors are driving boards to consider a new talent pool.

Specifically, what kind of digital skill sets are in demand?

Business model transformation to new digitally powered businesses
Engineering and specific technology experience such as security
Core software experience
Digital marketing
E-commerce / digital channel

Do you get the sense that boards know which specific skill sets they’re after? How often do you see their criteria evolve from the beginning of the search process to their selection of the candidate?

It is not uncommon to hear very broad starting places for searches. Our advice is to consider the skills and experience that will be helpful for the business in a more evergreen vs fad-based manner. Reflecting on both the hard skills and soft skills creates a very purposeful candidate profile—one capable of influencing culture and decision-making—rather than a “shiny object”.

In your experience, what’s the single biggest obstacle to age diversity in today’s boardrooms?

I see two main issues:

  1. In some ways, there’s been a bad precedent set for these digital directors. Too often, they’ve been recruited without proper onboarding and without consideration of the company’s evolutionary stage or level of maturity—and it hasn’t always worked out. Just because someone has worked at Facebook doesn’t mean he or she knows how to guide a 100-year-old company through a transition to ecommerce. Likewise, someone with digital marketing experience may not know the first thing about cybersecurity. There’s still an information gap on both sides. Boards need to better assess their company’s needs and the candidate’s capabilities, and prospective directors need a better understanding of what board service entails.
  2. Next-gen directors, broadly speaking, are very disinterested in sitting on a board where they aren’t making an impact on real issues: strategy, technology roadmap, etc. Historically, there’s always been a clear delineation between running the company and sitting on the board, but these younger, growth-driven directors are beginning to blur those lines. Boards that want to get the best talent are having to re-examine their model of governance or the way they engage to drive performance. It’s a paradigm shift, but it’s only at the early stages.

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