Payments and Digital Talent In Demand, But Hard to Find

July 11, 2016 – The payments and digital sector has experienced impressive growth in recent years, with new players and approaches forever changing how businesses all over the world operate. As a result, there’s growing demand for leaders in the field who can help organizations take best advantage of the new technology and drive further innovation.

But those roles can be tough to fill, especially as the need for them continues to grow, says Chris Pantelidis, global head of EMA Partners‘ global payments, digital and transactions service practice, one of the leaders in the sector.

In a recent interview, Chris walked me through his field of play and the challenges that his firm and others face in keeping ahead of demand and finding the best talent. A product of the advent of technology and its continued expansion, the sector is wide ranging and encompasses functional niche areas like digital, mobile payments, financial technology, loyalty, and Big Data and analytics, among other disciplines.

Payments, for instance, reaches across many industries, Chris explains, and requires contributions from multiple services. “The best way to think about it is to consider how many players are involved in the facilitation of payments or loyalty transactions,” says Chris. “You have banks, retailers, tech companies, networks, merchant processors, and consumers.”

Burgeoning Demand, Talent Shortfall

Over the past few years, he says, new disrupters have challenged traditional and legacy organizations. “New entrants have emerged through acquisition, or through the development of new technology and applications. The payments ecosystem has seen a transformation with pure play digital companies like Apple and Amazon; both have augmented business lines by creating innovative ways for consumers to shop and pay.”

All this shakes out into a burgeoning demand for businesses and other organizations to bring in individuals with specific skills and experience with digital companies or digital transformation. “There is a massive talent shortage at the C-level across functional areas and across business lines in this sector,” says Chris. “As more companies realize the need to evolve with digital, to innovate, and to disrupt, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify and attract talented executives. It’s critical for leaders to understand payments, both legacy systems and disruptive applications. They need to drive strategy and transformation, and promote growth as well as stability.”

An Opportunistic Decision

Chris, who works out of EMA Partners’ Toronto and New York offices, has been in the search industry for more than 20 years. Before joining EMA, he was a partner in the financial services practice at Odgers Berndtson. He originally had no plans to work in executive recruitment, but found his way into the business through a close contact. His first job, at a boutique firm, was an “opportunistic decision,” he says.

“I was looking for a profession where I could capitalize on my desire to become a specialist in a specific field developing expertise in a growth area,” Chris recalls. “When I started my career the goal was to find a gap in the market where there was a need for an SME that didn’t exist at the time. I quickly identified the need for an executive search practitioner in the payments and transactions services industry. There were many large complex organizations, medium-sized companies and associations that expressed the desire to work with an executive search consultant who truly understood their business. The payments business was going through a great deal of change and growth, and it was also experiencing a talent shortage across the ecosystem at the executive level, so it was an opportune time to get immersed in the business.”

Big Data

A critical part of the digital revolution, and a growing part of Chris’s efforts, revolves around Big Data. Companies are increasingly using data to change their mode of operations and to improve products and services. Big Data has also become a tremendous driver of revenues and profits.

“Over the next 10 years the scale and diversity of Big Data will lead to new sources of insight that will allow companies to engage with customers in unique ways,” Chris says. “Many experts believe that there is a time lag between insights and utilization of data, so there is a need to generate real-time results and use them to gain a competitive edge. Continuous research and development is paramount in this area, and the trend of building centers of excellence to support Big Data initiatives will continue.”

For Chris and his colleagues at EMA Partners that means a growing number of calls seeking talent to fill the need. “We are seeing an increase in demand for chief data officers, chief data scientists, chief analytics and chief digital officers,” he says. “Similar to other digital roles, organizations are finding it very difficult to identify strong leadership talent in these areas. It is a niche market that is getting more complex, where the demand for talent far outweighs the supply.”

In these days of talent shortages in many sectors, Chris believes it’s critical for recruiters to have a thorough knowledge of their clients’ industries. Building long-term relationships with clients and would-be candidates, meanwhile, matters more than ever in finding leaders to fill the top jobs. “The most sought after C-level talent will get approached and offered opportunities on numerous occasions,” Chris says. “If your value proposition is compelling and you’re a known entity in the market, that goes a long way to forging a relationship and enticing top professionals. A lot has been said on how to successfully partner with clients. They want to ensure that you’re able to identify best-in-class leaders for any given role.”

Leading Transformation

Chris believes that recruiters need to think about partnering with top talent in a similar fashion. “Top talent wants to be represented by the highest degree of professionalism and they want the same assurances that organizations want, that they’re being presented with best-in-class opportunities. You have to be prepared to invest the time to forge close relationships with top talent. I’m interested in developing new relationships with trend setters and market leaders across the areas that I specialize in. We all have access to candidate profiles and if you’re a seasoned search professional you will likely have developed a sound search strategy and execution methodology. The differentiator lies in your ability to relate to top leaders in a compelling, unique, and credible way.”

Organizations today want leaders with abilities that run deeper than the achievements and experience listed on their resumes. Leadership means being able to guide people toward specific goals, Chris says. The best leaders are authentic about creating an environment of collaboration and trust. Leaders must have a range of capabilities including being visionaries, evangelists, SMEs in a few areas, and tactical in their execution.

“Inspirational leaders are always in high demand,” he says. “The ability to influence, think strategically, and build strong and capable management teams are all qualities that we look for in a senior leader. Today, organizations need executives who can lead transformation, and in particular digital transformation. Global experience is not only a ‘nice to have’ – it’s often a necessity to bring an international perspective to a mandate. It’s important for leaders in non-technology sectors to have an understanding of how technology is impacting their businesses. It’s a given: leaders must be digitally savvy. And finally, leaders must possess the ability to select the right talent for an executive team, as well as promote a culture throughout the organization that fosters employee commitment and long-term loyalty.”

Contributed by Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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