Recently we asked hundreds of graduates from the CEMS Master in International Management programme – likely to be future business leaders – to provide us with insights into trends they believe will affect them over the next few years; in particular, the biggest challenges facing them as 21st century leaders.

Interestingly the rapid rate of technological and digital advancement came out as the top challenge (68%), above shifts in world economic and political powers (60%) and environmental challenges such as global warming and energy consumption (59%).

At the same time, almost a quarter (24%) considered Tesla/ SpaceX Founder Elon Musk as the world’s most effective leader, followed by Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson (10%).

So, it is clear that while these graduates see technological/digital advancement as a challenge, they also see innovative and positive mastery of technology as a key business driver and the mark of a successful future business leader. After all, these global figures are successful because they are able to harness rapid technological change and use it for social development, rather than seeing it as a hurdle.

Technology – an opportunity for future leaders

To expand on these findings we further consulted our graduates and corporate partners (global multinational companies) to gain more of an insight into what some of these technology challenges might involve and how young professionals aspiring for leadership can take advantage of them.

Keeping up with the rate of digital advancement will be a huge issue for 21st century business leaders, adding a whole new layer of complexity as they try to innovate within a crowded market place. Technological advancements on a scale matching that of the industrial revolution of the late 19th century – Networked Production, 3D printing, artificial intelligence automation, Big Data, the influence of social media – are sure to disrupt many industries and see new ones thrive at a rapid rate.

Recent CEMS graduate Florian Smeritschnig, who now works for management consultancy McKinsey, told us that he believes “The increasingly rapid rate of technological and digital advancement means that 21st century business leaders will need to reinvent their companies at much faster pace than their predecessors.
“Technology and new markets have the power to create completely new business models (potentially making existing businesses irrelevant) and operating models (either improving the value proposition to the customer and/or reducing cost of the offering drastically), meaning leaders will have to work even harder to keep up with competitors.
“Business and political leaders also face a huge social responsibility to soften the detrimental impact of technological advancements which could make many job positions of today obsolete in the near future.”

However, Christoph Fellinger, Talent Development Manager for international skin care company Beieresdorf, a CEMS corporate partner, was positive about these changes for the next generation of business leaders, explaining that “although they may see digitalization as a challenge, graduates today are also the best ambassadors and engineers for this within business and the rapid rate of technological advancement presents a great opportunity for them.

“If graduates can demonstrate sound business understanding and combine this with technological innovation they will be able to help move their business the next level.”

“Leaders must constantly reinvent themselves”

In 2016 one of our corporate partners, A.T Kearney, worked with CEMS students from the University of St Gallen on a student consulting project centred on the future of retail and digital disruption, examining which technological and digital advancements and influential trends will impact retail over the next few years. The project was voted “CEMS Business Project of the Year.”

Frederic Fernandez, Senior Manager of the Goods and Retail Practice at A.T.Kearney told us, “these days digital enhancement is at the core of any business model; this is the key thing that future business leaders need to grasp. If everybody agrees that the digital revolution is changing the way we are doing business, very few leaders today understand fully the scale of this change. Leaders also need to react quickly and constantly reinvent themselves as they often work far too slowly, with a piecemeal approach, losing ground to competitors and doing far too little too late.

A.T Kearney, which works with a number of clients to help them digitally transform their business, has found that starting at the top of organisations to educate leaders and help them understand why this digital change is so important is key. “You can have right strategy but still fail because your leaders and workforce don’t share or understand the vision,” Fernandez added.

Competing for talent

The rapid pace of technological advancement certainly also means that the intensity of the competition for talent will increase, with the goal to attract, retain and heavily invest in employees who can take advantage of these changes. This provides a huge opportunity for savvy, forward-thinking graduates.
Companies will need employees who can work in big corporations but who are also entrepreneurial, tech savvy knowledgeable disruptors. They need future leaders who are great at scaling up big tech ideas whilst understanding the smallest details; people who can be creative, innovative and shape the future.
In the same way, we know from conversations with our CEMS graduates about where they hope to work, that they name different companies now than they would have done even five years ago. They want to work for employers who can make a genuine change to the world and tackle international challenges through truly understanding and harnessing digital as well as other major business trends.

International education is key

Clearly millennials will face very different business challenges to graduates of yesteryear and they see technological change as one of the most pertinent. However, it is the ones who can take advantage of these changes, innovate, and importantly looking beyond profit maximization towards creating long term value for an inter-connected society, who will ultimately benefit and become the successful business leaders of tomorrow.

Our best hope to make the most of this, as is confirmed by the history of human development, is to invest in the international education of future leaders.

At CEMS, we emphasise both ‘the big picture‘, looking at global strategies of multi- national companies, as well as the ‘micro‘ aspects of what it means to be a leader, in an intercultural, rapidly developing environment, through both theory and practice.

Through this approach we hope to ensure that our graduates can thrive in this age of dynamism and disruption and get ahead as leaders in a world of massive technological change.