Digital Transformation & Leadership: The 5 Big Questions

What does ‘digital’ actually mean? How will your company cope with digital transformation? What happens to the people who can’t or won’t go digital? Are your leaders doing what digital leaders have to do? Are you personally ready, willing and able to go digital yourself? Michael Leckie, digital transformation leader and advisor to Leading Edge Forum, addresses the big questions behind digital transformation.

When discussing digital transformation and winning in the digital world it’s useful to be reminded of the old story of two guys out in the jungle who see a lion. As the lion starts to head towards them, one of the guys sits down and gets out his running shoes. “What are you doing?” asks his companion. “Even with spikes you can’t outrun a lion!”

“No,” agrees the first. “But I don’t have to outrun the lion, I just have to outrun you.”

The bad news is that the lion that is the future digital world is headed straight for you whether you see it or not, so you’d better get your shoes on, get going, and give it your all. Your organization is going to have to transform to survive and thrive.

So, how do you get started and keep moving? My experience has led me to five big questions that can become the engine of transformation for you and your organisation.

1. What does ‘digital’ actually mean?

‘Digital’ can mean many things, from technology, to developing new products or creating new opportunities, to ways of working and thinking. Have you identified what digital’s most important meanings are for you and your business? What is the impact of that on your brand and strategy? Do you have the right sensing abilities and eyes on what is happening out there to allow you to see the possibilities of what digital can mean to you? How are you making decisions about which ones matter most and what actions you will take as a result?

2. How will your company cope with digital transformation?

While you are starting to ask these questions, is your organization preparing for what happens when you start to answer them? Sadly, it probably isn’t. Your organization has probably worked very hard to build structures, systems, processes and operating models to run and grow based on what you do today, not tomorrow or (more importantly) the day after tomorrow.

To prepare for transformation, you need to ask whether your HR department has an active plan for automating low- value work. Is it seeking out talent and passion, or filling fixed positions with people whose CV’s say they’ve already done those tasks elsewhere? Do you have an HR function that is finding, reskilling and preparing the right people for an unknown tomorrow?

3. What happens to the people who can’t or won’t go digital?

In this transformation non-converts will drag you down and keep you from changing meaningfully or quickly. That spells disaster if you are trying to transform in time to meet the challenges of the digital world.

You need to be able to clearly assess the talent you have and determine what you will need. Then you must make the changes that take you from a company that just executes to a company that innovates at all levels. This means changes in what people are doing, and it means changes in people.

4. Are your leaders doing what digital leaders have to do?

  • Are they ready as individuals? The leaders of winning digital firms are very happy to set goals they have no idea how to achieve. Whatever else you think about serial entrepreneur Elon Musk and his businesses, he’s got a team of leaders at SpaceX who are seriously planning to land a manned vehicle on Mars in their lifetime.
  • Are they ready as a team? Do they support and hold each other accountable to the shared context and goal? If the leadership team is not functioning smoothly as a team, helping each other and sacrificing their own short-term gains for the greater good of the business when needed, then your ability to move quickly and with synchronicity is in grave danger.
  • Do they believe in your digital future? Will your leaders embrace the potentially radical shift in what your company is and does, and will they be bold enough to force clarity and put the real problems on the table.

5. Are you personally ready, willing and able to go digital yourself?

No-one knows better than you what the current reality is, where the pressures come from in your industry, and what competing forces impact your decisions daily. However, leading this transformation will be the hardest thing you’ve done in your career as you must embody the digital transformation of your company through your own digital transformation.

It is really hard. But either you transform or you fade – there’s no other choice. But there is some good news: You’re reading this and you’re trying. You hear the lion roaring and you’ve decided to do something about it.

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