Hiring Executive Talent: The Commercial & Technical “Unicorn”
As the workforce continues to evolve with rising technology trends, the need for business leaders to keep up with new software and platforms, understand how to utilize them, and strategize on how they align with their company’s needs is consistent and constantly growing. However, not every business leader will have the digital literacy necessary to do so. The commercial/technical “unicorn” today falls in the middle of the spectrum- they may have a computer science degree, know how to write code, understand the ins and outs of technical infrastructure and legacy systems, and know how to explain these concepts to their client base with ease and little misunderstanding. Harvard Business Review writer Sophia Matveeva writes about the knowledge and communication gaps between commercial leaders and tech specialists. In her article, Matveeva argues that “coding isn’t a necessary skill- but digital literacy is,” highlighting where the importance of a deeper understanding of digital literacy is needed.
For an executive-level headhunter, the task of finding a seasoned leader today is a multi-faceted one. It’s no secret that in order to hold an executive-level position in any company, an array of business acumen is needed. This means bringing a breadth of experiences holding client-facing roles, working smoothly with the C-suite in order to execute objectives, and understanding the markets in which they work. Finding a commercial business leader to lead a technology company is where executive recruiters have their job cut out for them.
John M. Calvani began his career at TritonExec as an intern in 2019, paving a career path through the company that hadn’t been seen before. Placing over 50 individuals in some of the globe’s fastest growing tech companies by the age of 24, Calvani is often asked how he’s able to do so without a college degree in anything technology-related, or first-hand experience working with the technologies he has conversations about on a daily basis.
The youngest Director in TritonExec history credits much of his success to not being an expert himself in the technologies that those he recruits work with. For Calvani, it’s all about having a deep understanding of the role itself, asking the right questions and understanding their nuances, and constantly learning with the technologies that are evolving.
“Getting some real-time information about what’s going on with the technologies that my client are looking for, as well as those that parallel them, helps me consult commercial hiring leaders. This broadens their understanding of what they need, along with their overall digital literacy”
Bergen Banta: Paint me a picture of the perfect leader for a technology company.
John Calvani: Tech businesses want a leader who knows their market from a product and customer standpoint. On the product side, they want someone who’s spent time in industry, has a network in that industry, and understands the technology and products that the company has built or the service(s) they offer. Someone who knows why their offering is better or different than any other offering today, what the value proposition is behind it, and has the data to back it up. The customer side is where you’re looking at someone’s business background. In this sense, tech companies want a leader who is revenue driving, has a customer understanding, knows the company’s target customers, and can help a client understand how, where, when, and why it would be used.
BB: Tell me about your experience recruiting non-technical people who have a tech background.
JC: This is what I do most at TritonExec. The rise in demand for this type of leader with this experience highlights how important digital literacy is today. It’s imperative for a leader of a tech company to be able to communicate from the business to the tech side fluidly with little gaps in understanding. To put this into perspective- if I’m a fintech, I want a leader who understands the value my product brings, what it does, and where it fits within the industry. I want someone who comes from a place that uses this product and has a network around it to help our company build better products in the changing tech world. These people are most effective in bridging the gap between commercial employees and tech specialists.
“It’s rare to find someone who can tick all of these boxes because you’re not only looking for someone with an impressive background, domain knowledge, industry involvement and expertise. You’re looking for someone with product knowledge, as well as the ability to communicate that knowledge to those who don’t always understand the product themselves”
BB: What’s your research strategy after being tasked to find someone who is both technical and commercial?
JC: First, I take a deep dive into the product or service this person is selling and try to understand it from a non-technical perspective. This means questioning, why is this product important? What does it do? Where does it fit into the overall business? How does it accelerate efficiency and scale, and why? What people don’t understand is that you don’t need to use a platform to be able to understand it- it can help to see it in order to visualize how it’s used, but it’s not necessary. For example, if I’m working on a role where knowing SQL is a key factor in this person’s daily life, I don’t need to learn how to code with it. What I need to learn is why it was created. This acts as my compass when mapping out who I need to be speaking with and helps me curate questions for them.
After learning about the product, it’s all about networking. Tapping into the markets where these candidates exist. Frequently I connect with solution architects, solution consultants, sales engineers, technical consultants, and/or pre-sales engineers, as they’re usually those that are both technical and commercial in their role today. Another approach I take is connecting with individuals who have spent time in both commercial and technical roles in their career- this can be someone who started in engineering and made their way into sales, or vice versa.
After having a few conversations with potential candidates, something that I’ve found to be extremely beneficial is to go back to the client and give them some up-to-date market insight about tech products in today’s business landscape. Oftentimes I’m given a set of requirements, such as a set of coding languages a candidate will need to know for a role, from a client that a commercial business leader thinks they need. But if they’re more commercially focused, they don’t always know if the languages are relevant with respect to technology trends. My value add increases by asking potential candidates for their expertise in these conversations- what products are still being offered today? Are there any new products that people are using? What coding languages are being used, and have any become obsolete? What’s relevant and what’s not? Getting some real-time information about what’s going on with the technologies that my client are looking for, as well as those that parallel them, helps me consult commercial hiring leaders. This broadens their understanding of what they need, along with their overall digital literacy.
BB: Once you understand the role, how do you assess where this person lies on the commercial/technical spectrum?
JC: A resume can say a lot about whether a person is more technical or commercial, along with someone’s skills and certificates they advertise on LinkedIn. That being said, it’s about finding that perfect person. When a company is looking for a technical and commercial executive, they want to bring in a leader who understands both the causes and effects that the product has on their client. For someone who seems more technical than commercial, I ask questions like, do you hold any commercial targets in your role today? What’s your involvement in the sales cycle? Can you tell me about where you feel most comfortable? Where you’re looking to grow?
When assessing someone who seems more commercial, I ask them about their experience working with tech products, where their role starts and stops with respect to using the technology, and how involved they are with their tech team(s). Commercial executives will give very different answers than technical executives, but that perfect person will be able to speak on the value they’ve added in both spaces and communicate it in a way that makes sense to the person sitting on the other side of the table.
It’s rare to find someone who can tick all of these boxes because you’re not only looking for someone with an impressive background, domain knowledge, industry involvement and expertise. You’re looking for someone with product knowledge, as well as the ability to communicate that knowledge to those who don’t always understand the product themselves.
“It’s imperative for a leader of a tech company to be able to communicate from the business to the tech side fluidly with little gaps in understanding”
The rising demand for digital literacy isn’t exclusive to leadership roles in tech companies. Digital literacy is becoming more prevalent across industries, functions and markets than ever before. At TritonExec, we’ve seen an upsurge of technical requirements in traditionally commercial roles as technology continues to transform and pervade the workforce. This manifests itself in clients seeking those who are up to date with new technologies, stay informed on where technology is heading, and want to be apart of the continuous technological revolution.
At TritonExec, our approach to executive search ties in this forward-looking method of hiring. As a firm, we act as an embedded partner with our clients to create deep-seated connections with their networks and markets in which they exist. Rather than using a job description centered around solving an immediate problem, our teams build communities of talent through proactive talent pipelining. The process of creating these communities involves giving candidates and clients impeccable experiences that don’t focus on filling a role. Rather, they focus on tapping into the talent that these communities provide without an expiration date. The networks we’ve created around our prestigious clientele allow clients and candidates to stay closely connected for the present moment, or when timing is right for both parties in the future.