Why Success or Failure of Digital Transformation Starts in the C-suite

Most business leaders I speak to are investing heavily in digital transformation. In today’s world, it’s a given – no-one wants to get left behind. But it’s a complex task and organisations often struggle with it. According to a recent Econsultancy report, only one in five (21%) executives believe their CEO sets a clear digital vision for their business and one in five senior executives think their organisation’s latest digital transformation project is a waste of time. This is a problem.

According to McKinsey, turning your company into a top-quartile digital player can increase revenue by 3.5% and drive profits up to 15% higher than the competition. So the difference between an organisation finding its feet digitally – or not – is critical. When a digital overhaul doesn’t land or deliver the returns it’s supposed to, it’s tempting to question the technology. Actually, you can tell a lot about how a major digital programme will stand or fall by how involved the C-suite executives are in the process, or how involved they’re prepared to be.

Digital transformation is never just about ticking that box saying you’ve modernised, or you’ve enhanced your website, or got that data on an intranet. It’s about creating a more efficient, consistent way to do business in a way that’s unique to you. That’s why it’s different for every organisation, and a fundamental part of a bigger strategic roadmap for your entire business.

The idea that you can’t separate technology and your use of it from how your business lives and breathes is something board-level executives sometimes shy away from. But it’s today’s reality – one that successful disruptors instinctively understand. That’s why leaving digital purely with your tech department is missing a trick, and where many digital transformation programmes fail. To harness digital in a way that advances your brand, your edge, and your bottom line, you need to truly involve all aspects of your organisation. The only way that’s going to happen is when you enlist the active support of the people who know your business from every perspective.

In other words, successful digital transformations need complete C-suite engagement, from Information to Marketing, to HR to Operations – your entire board.


From design to implementation

One of the challenges of implementation is that different divisions don’t like having new technology developments foisted on them. If they’ve been developed in isolation, they might not even be fit for purpose. C-suite collaboration at the start of a digital transformation journey gathers the right inputs and thinking into the design process, translating them into a more seamless, collaborative programme right through to implementation – from IT to help bed down new technology, HR to train employees on new systems and process, and Marketing to communicate and inspire, so everyone knows what’s happening and gets behind the change.


Motivating the rest of the organisation

The C-Suite is where the narrative is set for the rest of the company. If this narrative is scepticism and uncertainty – or perhaps even a complete lack of engagement – this will inevitably trickle down; but the same goes if the message is one of motivation and excitement. And via your frontline staff, your customers will feel it too.

Leading drastic organisational shifts (for example, away from siloed business structures and towards more agile ways of working) with a clear leadership makes all the difference. The first thing leaders need to do is communicate the vision clearly and consistently, based on reasons employees can get behind. The next step is to create blended teams that combine insight and skills. To bring people in this way, you need senior level oversight. Yet only 35% of business going through digital transformation do this, which proves that C-Suite engagement is often the missing piece of the puzzle for companies struggling with digital transformation.

The big question is – how do you get the C-Suite engaged? How do you prove to those at the top that digital transformation is worth it, and that they’re the ones who can and should engage the rest of the organisation?


  1. Make it human

It’s important to demystify the tech terminology associated with digital transformation, as not all members of the C-Suite will be as comfortable with technology as others. When digital transformation involves complicated jargon, it’s easy for anyone who doesn’t understand it to switch off. To avoid this, you can embed IT into other departments, making sure the process is something everyone can relate to. Borrow a writer from marketing to translate the technicalities in your executive presentations and internal comms into plain English.


  1. Show it matters

People can have different preconceptions about what ‘digital transformation’ means. While, yes, it is about technology, the reasons for the investment aren’t at heart about technology – rather, they’re about initiating organisational shifts and enhancements that are going to take you forward as a business. From saving time on routine tasks to making customers happier, the outcome is going to bring rewards for everyone, not just the tech gurus. Put this message front and centre of all internal communication to get your team onside.


  1. Prove it works

Numbers are hard to argue with. You can combat the idea that digital transformation is a waste of time by showing that it works. Where digital transformation has or is positively impacting on business objectives, make sure you communicate and celebrate that. The C-Suite will then feel confident to pass this information on to the rest of the organisation and drive a digital transformation project forward. On top of this, sharing KPIs and provable instances of success will bring the sense of a common goal, an opportunity to showcase a team achievement.


Success starts here

Of course, digital transformation is more of an evolution than a revolution. While you might start with a large programme goal, what’s really happening is the beginning of a journey where digital innovation becomes part of your growth and progress as a business. It’s a shift in mindset, ways of working and organisational structure. The ultimate goal is to have company-wide engagement – involving everyone from board level to front-line staff – in your vision as a digital business, with your C-Suite driving it. The organisations that flourish in the future will have a C-suite that ‘thinks digital’ and embraces their role in digital change as a standard part of successful business leadership.


Neil Svensen, CEO

Rufus Leonard

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