Navigating stormy seas – why today’s CEOs must be tech-savvy captains

Why is becoming tech-savvy key to running a business?

In an era of unprecedented uncertainty, leaders must chart a course through challenges, from geopolitical tensions to economic headwinds. To avoid being swept away, they must become masters of data and technology but step out of the operational engine room and onto the bridge.

Four years after the start of the coronavirus pandemic, CEOs face a more turbulent environment than ever. While the health crisis may have abated, the global economy is being buffeted by strong headwinds, from geopolitical tensions to polarized electorates, soaring energy prices, and rising interest rates. 

In this environment, CEOs scramble to chart a course through choppy, uncharted waters, and many find themselves all at sea. To avoid sinking, they must become masters of both technology and leadership and be capable of understanding data from multiple sources.

That’s the view of Jeff Casale, CEO of Intelligent Planning Platform Board International, and Kirsty Braines, CEO of business consultancy Oliver Wight EAME. The two organizations have forged a strategic alliance to help organizations weather the storm.

But this opinion is not new. 

“To reach a port, we must set sail. Sail, not tie at anchor. Sail, not drift.” So wrote Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American president who died in office in 1945. His point is that leaders can better navigate challenges by having a broader scope of understanding. Oliver Wight and Board provide a modern approach for businesses to better read the winds, the waves, and other variables. And now is the time when they need it most.

“The macro environment is crazy at the moment,” says Casale, who took the helm at the Board in November 2023. “This environment is one of the most challenging times for business leaders to absorb and predict market changes effectively while simultaneously running their organizations.”

Braines agrees. “The pandemic spurred change, but it also suppressed other changes, which have been accelerated since life started returning to some sort of normality,” she says. What, then, does it take to be a successful CEO in such turbulent times? 

Data-driven decision-making

According to Casale and Braines, mastering technology and data is critical, but so, too, is the ability to shift one’s focus from operational firefighting to strategic direction and planning for the future.

For Casale, whose career has centred around “technology that was designed to allow companies to execute and compete more effectively”, one of the biggest barriers to sound decision-making is a lack of accurate, real-time data. Too many executives at multinational companies, he argues, are still “emailing spreadsheets around with critical information”, leaving them vulnerable to errors and outdated insights.

I’ve seen it myself repeatedly: you’re sitting there in a planning meeting, suddenly millions of dollars are missing, and it was because something crashed or a decimal moved,” Casale recalls. Such failures create “existential risk” for companies, he warns.

Braines has witnessed similar problems in the organizations that she advises. Despite amassing large amounts of data, many struggle to extract meaningful insights. “Many organizations that we work with have started to create data lakes, but they don’t know how to fish from them.”

The two CEOs agree that the answer is to invest in integrated planning systems that combine internal and external data into a “single source of truth”. Board’s Intelligent Planning Platform, for example, combines business intelligence, planning, and predictive analytics, enabling companies to anticipate market trends, model different scenarios, and align strategic, financial, and operational plans. 

Partnering with an expert business consultancy like Oliver Wight to implement best practice Integrated Business Planning (IBP) processes is also crucial, states Braines. “The integration is multifaceted. It’s not just the integration of the right people being involved with the right processes, with the right technology at that middle-management and executive level. It’s the integration all the way through so that there’s confidence throughout that organization.”

Captaining the ship

But while becoming more data-driven is essential, the best CEOs recognize that they cannot simply be passive observers, poring over dashboards. Instead, they must actively lead their organizations through uncharted territory.

Drawing on a nautical analogy, Braines argues that chief executives must spend more time “on the bridge” scanning the horizon for threats and opportunities and less in the “engine room”, attending to day-to-day operations.

She shared an anecdote about a client who admitted to being consumed by short-term planning to ensure everything was going accordingly. Braines pointed out that this preoccupation with immediate concerns left no one at the helm to guide the company’s overall direction and strategy.

Casale notes that when companies are already in a reactive mode and then face a significant event, they often struggle to establish a clear process and obtain reliable information. The challenge lies in striking a balance between strategic thinking and tactical execution, a feat that successful companies manage to achieve.

Braines illustrates this point with a company that condensed its original three-year targets into a single year while maintaining a “very aggressive strategy” for the following three years. Despite this ambitious plan, the company remains stuck in the operational details – the “engine room” – and, therefore, is failing to steer the business in its intended direction.

Granted, setting a long-term strategic direction is easier said than done when the future is so uncertain. Braines and Casale point out that even the most tech-savvy, data-driven CEO can’t offer a 100% guarantee of what will happen next. Still, that shouldn’t stop leaders from planning as best they can.

“Quite a lot of that is around the assumptions of what’s going to happen because nobody’s got a working crystal ball,” says Braines. “It is more about ensuring that we’re capturing what we believe is likely to happen to us based on that environment and our internal capabilities.”

Course-correction needed

Braines continues that documenting these assumptions is vital, providing a reference point against which to track events as they unfold. “This way, we can course-correct and ensure that we are still making the most appropriate and optimum decisions for the future of the business.”

Casale is similarly realistic about forecasting’s limitations in an unpredictable world. “A lot of organizations are finding that because they don’t have this process and the data is not integrated, they may start on the right track, but very quickly, they’re going off track and heading in the wrong direction, and it takes a period to realize the fault,” he says. 

Forward-thinking CEOs will embrace cloud-based planning platforms and IBP processes that allow them to monitor internal and external data continuously, so they are quickly alerted to changes in crucial assumptions and can adapt their plans accordingly.

As CEOs scan an ever-stormier horizon, Casale and Braines are optimistic they can find a haven in the strategic partnership between their two organisations. The result is Oliver Wight IBP Powered by Board, a holistic solution that has been built to optimize business outcomes, maximize profit, and reduce risk. It combines Oliver Wight’s industry-leading Class A and implementation change management processes with Board Intelligent Planning software.

Whether it is the upheaval of a pandemic, a looming recession, or some as yet unforeseen event, Casale and Braines are confident that CEOs can steer their organizations towards calmer waters by investing in the right technology, processes, and partnerships. But only if they dare to step out of the engine room and take their rightful place on the bridge.

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