Finding your way in times of technological expansion and economic challenge requires a blend of traditional management skills, technical know-how and an entrepreneurial mindset.

The pandemic, lockdown and travel restrictions have radically changed how we work and consume. Business leaders must develop new skills, or enhance existing talents, to survive and thrive in the new ecosystem.

A study published last year by the research team at CaixaBank, one of Spain’s leading financial institutions, found that the number of people working from home peaked in the Iberian nation just a few months after the pandemic began. It remains to be seen whether the trend will continue in the long term, but so far it has ushered in dramatic changes in the way we work in most parts of the world. 

For example, “Universalizing access to digital technologies to address the consequences of COVID-19”, a report from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), reveals that traffic and the use of teleworking solutions shot up by 324%. According to research conducted by a group of economists from the MIT Sloan School of Management in the United States, over half (50.02%) of US workers now work from home. 

The video call app Zoom is a fine example, having posted jaw-dropping returns in 2020. According to Statista data, the company earned $USD777 million, its all-time high, rising from $USD169 million in the same period in 2019. Other apps enabling video calls, such as Google Meet and Microsoft Themes, are also among the most downloaded for 2020.

In this new, remote working world, video calls and online shopping – which skyrocketed 71% worldwide in the second quarter of last year according to Salesforce – managers must channel energies into certain increasingly important hard and soft skills.

Diego Martínez, from the Center for Entrepreneurship at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City, cites “innovation” as the top soft skill a leader requires in uncertain times. Only the most flexible companies, best able to quickly adjust their business model to the new times, will survive.

Innovative Leader: The Benchmark in 3D Printing

Although seeming almost paradoxical, the fashion industry, which prides itself on exploring the latest trends and is modern by definition, suffers more than might be expected when adapting to the new times and assimilating digitalization. “While digitalization in fashion is nothing new, the digital introduction and development has always been exceedingly slow, much slower than other fields,” according to María Calvo, an authority and professor in the use of new technology in fashion at a design and fashion school in Madrid. Albeit slowly, the sector has plunged into digital world in every industry process, from creation to sales. Certain professional profiles are needed to oversee these upgrades.

To ensure, sustain and continue progress, leaders open to the use of technology are essential. For instance, Calvo believes that the first major digital tool to hit the fashion world emerged in the 80s with the advent of computerized pattern making. This continued in the early 90s with automatic cutting machines. Both the cutting machines and software were extortionately expensive, meaning “only the big brands could afford it.” This slowed the process of implementing new tech. Consequently, an oligopolistic market formed, only broken in the last 10 years with the proliferation of new programs, finally accessible to smaller stores and independent brands. 

However, this would not have been possible without managerial profiles combining (the managers themselves or their teams) creativity and technological openness with fashion industry knowledge. Nowadays, 3D garment simulation is the technology arousing the most interest. “In recent years, 3D in fashion has gained widespread adoption, specifically since the US consultant Calypso published a report in 2017 noting that 3D technology was the area where fashion companies were investing the most. That’s when we all realized what was going on,” says the professor from the European Institute of Design. 

This tool saves time and resources, facilitating communication between members of the design team. Previously, any changes required a great deal of time and material, whereas now, it only takes a few minutes, and no fabric is wasted. “It’s also extremely useful for showcasing and selling clothes before manufacturing them,” Calvo adds, highlighting sector demand for a highly specific profile currently in short supply: pattern designers skilled in the use of 3D garment simulation programs. “These people don’t exist yet!” she exclaims.

Eduardo Sánchez, director of the IED School of Fashion, mentions 3D simulation first when addressing digital skills: “It helps purchasing planning, making production more efficient.” But there’s more. For sales, marketing and communication processes, the key to success lies in “SEO positioning, powerful apps and augmented reality, such as online fitting rooms ensuring there are no returns because the customer bought the wrong size, which accounts for most cases. 

Sánchez believes the profiles involved in undertaking these tasks, as well as “user interface and user experience,” are in high demand across the sector.

He also highlights the importance of big data and artificial intelligence to understand how customers buy and about product presentation. This must all be moved to social media, “where we depend on external tools with their own rules.” Customers must have: “A good e-commerce experience, because a good product and even a good price no longer guarantee anything. Brands offer much more.”

Hard and Soft

Skills inherent to the fashion industry and those concerning the digital economy, which is so mainstream these days, account for part of the ideal combo. These are “hard” skills. Other, “soft” skills come from assertive management.

Javier Valdez Alejandre, a lecturer at the Faculty of Accounting and Administration at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, underscores the importance of ethical leadership, where leaders guarantee fair working conditions for their employees. Martínez highlights other highly sought-after soft skills in modern companies: 

  • Analytical thinking (decisions based on hard data) 
  • Active learning and learning strategies (what you learned a year ago may not be up-to-date) 
  • Creativity, originality and initiative
  • Critical thinking and complex problem solving. 

“Fashion is suffering a great deal from technological adaptation, but several companies are benefiting an awful lot from online shopping and home delivery,” the professor notes. User experience design, marketing, sales and video production skills are also highly sought after during the pandemic.