As successful leaders are coming to realise, ‘digital’ isn’t so much a ‘thing’ to be achieved within an organization or industry; but rather, an era, requiring an ever-evolving mindset and intentional investment in the right capabilities.
While the business outcomes keeping executives awake at night haven’t changed drastically over recent years, the organisational skills and experience required to achieve them certainly have. The tried-and-tested approaches that have gotten businesses to where they are today will no longer cut it in the new digital landscape, with its explosion of technology-driven opportunities and its unique set of challenges and concerns. Instead, leaders must focus on making themselves, their teams and their organizations, digitally-ready and able to roll with the increasing pace of change.
From ‘Important’ to ‘Essential’:
Addressing the challenges of digital
We don’t need to look much further than the recent health pandemic to understand why digital readiness is critical right now. COVID-19 has amplified the need for transformation, and made the digital divide blindingly obvious. Those who were digitally-ready have adapted and survived the disruption, whilst those who were ill-equipped to do things differently have fallen by the wayside.
More importantly, perhaps, is the knowledge that COVID-19 won’t be the last major disruption that leaders must navigate- and that these same challenges created by the digital era will present themselves over and over again, leaving enterprises struggling to make the right choices, and the right changes, at the right time - let alone using technology effectively to seize new opportunities for value-creation.
So what are these challenges, and how should organizations respond to them?
Changing customer expectations
With digital, customer expectations have heightened in ways we never could have imagined. Real-time, any-time service, full customer control and consistency of multi-channel experiences are the minimum that customers expect, and they aren’t afraid to take their business elsewhere in order to get it. But these expectations are constantly changing, and organizations can’t afford to stand still.Without any real certainty about customer behaviors and buying patterns, organizations must, instead, be able to move quickly to experiment and pivot to meet these demands. This requires a very different leadership mindset.
In the current landscape, we must consider the impact of speed in three different ways. First, in terms of the time it takes to move a concept from idea to market and creating value, and how we can minimize the length of that cycle. Secondly, is the need for increased speed of decision-making amidst ambiguity, and lastly the increasing speed of change itself and the associated impact on our planning processes. It is no longer realistic to plan a year in advance, and expect all of our assumptions and knowledge to still hold true.
The inability of organizations to adopt new and emerging technologies to unlock value for the business or to make and scale the right tech choices, is one of the biggest challenges facing today’s digital leader. With this, comes the need to understand the impact of technology choices on your teams, your customer and your future decisions, as well as building a clear view of which technology trends are- or are not- important for your own organizational context, in order to leverage technology to your advantage.
As discussed earlier, the ability to respond and pivot has never been more important. Building elasticity and the ability to scale up and down at speed takes time and investment, and must be considered holistically across technology architecture, organizational processes and the workforce. Leaders must even consider areas outside of their direct control to eliminate single points of failure, such as in a single supply chain, for example.
Preparing to win
In order to overcome these challenges, leaders must build the digital capabilities needed to navigate the unknown future.
Through investing in these areas, leaders can successfully lead their enterprise through transformation by enabling:
- A better understanding of technology, allowing them to find ways to use tech to accelerate their business strategy execution and support rapidly evolving business capabilities.
- A flexible architecture that supports experimentation, failure and the rate of change needed to operate in the digital era.
- A simplified operating model, with fluidity of capital and talent.
- The ability to capture weaker signals, cutting through the increased noise of ambiguity, and the need to respond faster.
- The alignment and ability to make a fast decision, arising from transparency and visibility, and the alignment of strategic outcomes to investments.
Leading in the era of digital
The changing demands of the digital era also require a new kind of leadership. To move with the times, this ‘next generation’ of leaders must commit to the continual evolution of their own skills and characteristics as they take their organizations into the future.
There are three key traits that we believe a successful digital leader must master:
1. Visionary Enabler
The visionary enabler explores opportunities through the lens of their customers, and what is important to them now and in the future. They own the organization’s vision and set direction with a strong focus on outcomes. However, they also provide the autonomy and creative freedom for their teams to deliver on these outcomes, within visible constraints, rather than instructing them on exactly how to achieve this goal.
This leader is comfortable with ambiguity and owns the intent, rather than all the answers. Instead, they invest in embedding new muscle in teams to help them learn how to work through issues, to deal and learn from failures, and to identify the right response for the given situation, based on the provided guardrails.
Perhaps most importantly, while teaching them to learn, the visionary enabler provides air cover, creating a sense of psychological safety and security as their people experiment, fail and learn.
The tech-savvy leader understands the business relevance of key tech trends, and enables the adoption of the ones that are relevant to their own organizational goals to drive value for the organization. They view technology as a differentiator to create new opportunities, and know how to apply it for strategic advantage.
This leader is aware of the impact of tech excellence and how to use a high-performing tech team as a competitive business advantage. This includes creating the conditions that attract top talent from the market, by investing in the best physical and tech environment.
The cultivator is able to build and steward cultures of experimentation and growth for all employees, not just a separate group of ‘innovators’ or ‘incubators.’ They understand that the best ideas are more likely to emerge from those on the frontline of customer service or technology, and encourage a culture of exploring such opportunities.
They exemplify this behavior by openly experimenting themselves, and making their own wins, failures and learnings transparent. Winning and learning are celebrated equally.
The cultivator leader builds communities within their organization to foster an environment of mentorship and learning, asking the right questions to guide teams, and setting the guardrails for safety. They focus on the well-being of their people, to bring out the best in the talent that they have acquired.
Are you ready?
It can be tempting to continue to move forwards in the same ways that you always have, hoping to replicate the successes of the past, using the same lenses of reference, and the same behaviors that have previously served you well- but as we’ve explored, this is a dangerous mindset to adopt in the era of digital.
To become digitally-ready, it’s time to stop and take stock of where you are at today, and where you want to be in the future. To redesign the way you invest, the way you focus on customer value and how you build and evolve new leadership skills to remain relevant in a world that will never stand still. You must ask yourself if your technology and processes can keep up with the current pace of change, and if the answer is no, take bold action to build the strong foundations required for a resilient, adaptive organization. Remember that bold doesn’t always mean big. A bold vision, followed quickly with a strong but small first step, is often a better start than unwieldy programs which never get off the ground. Ambition is the starting point, but it’s pragmatism that will keep you moving.
By successfully preparing for change, you can position yourself and your enterprise to manage, and even benefit from, the unpredictable.