Leadership in a Digital World

Comm update_21MayAs technology continues to transform business models, a new breed of corporate leader is emerging who is digitally-savvy and assiduously curious. Rather than fearing change and obsessively trying to retain control, the most accomplished CEOs accept that for an organisation to compete globally and attract and retain the best talent, they must be highly collaborative, operationally focused and ruthlessly strategic.

These are just some of the outtakes from our Divisional CEO Retreat, held in association with Accenture. Over the course of 24-hours, our Members discussed the leadership skills and experience now required if global organisations are to thrive in the digital age.

“We’ve reached a tipping point with digital, but it’s not as frightening a proposition as we might think,” said Oliver Benzecry, Managing Director for the UK & Ireland at Accenture. “Large organisations are now institutionalising ‘digital’ into their business model and, increasingly, they are becoming the disrupter not the disrupted.”

Bal Samra, Commercial Director at the BBC, who is responsible for a budget in excess of £1 billion and over 1,000 staff, commented: “Digital disruption is inevitable so business leaders need to recognise it, collaborate and foster a culture of learning within the organisation so that more is understood with every new project.”

Speed is absolutely essential. Ruchir Rodrigues, UK Managing Director for Digital Banking (retail and business banking) at Barclays, said: “The pace of change in digital is dramatically accelerating, forcing companies to provide better products, services and customer experience… Remember, if you are not there for your customers they now have the choice to go elsewhere.”

Simon Johnson, Group Managing Director for UK & International at publisher HarperCollins, said: “Innovative digital leaders are those who are completely obsessed with inventing things and with customer experience… They also need to create the right culture internally, encouraging the people within the business to think more like a start-up.

“This might mean starting-up a skunkworks for innovation, for example… or setting up new business units in direct competition with legacy ones.”

Embracing change

According to Mark Spelman, Global Head of Strategy at Accenture, “New business models are coming to the fore that will require a new style of collaborative leadership. The first quality required of today’s leaders is therefore to explain context and synthesise complexity.”

Bal said: “Creating a disruptive business proposition isn’t easy because it means breaking all the rules and often challenging existing business models… In large organisations, big and disruptive digital projects will benefit from the support of the CEO but you’ll also need to build a coalition from within.

“That means creating champions below the board level and across boundaries within the business… because they’ll be the people interested in the product rather than who’s in charge.”

Likewise, the ‘digital natives’ in an organisation have to be fully cognisant of what the business wants to achieve in the short, medium and long term. Ruth Cairnie, Non-executive Director at both food manufacturer ABF and engineering concern Keller Group, commented: “The obligation is on the digital experts to remove the mystique and complexity for the board by communicating clearly and simply what really matters for the business.”

Donald Brydon, Chairman of software provider Sage, said: “In a large company like ours where there are 50,000 small decisions being made daily, the CEO needs to both understand these, yet also hold to a very clear and simple strategy based on rigorous analysis.”

It was widely agreed that Divisional CEOs must create an infrastructure which supports and enables connections for customers, employees, partners and communities. Ruchir said: “The biggest risk for companies is to do nothing with digital. If you’re not constantly testing, learning and evolving, you will be left behind.”

In one sense, the challenges facing Divisional CEOs in today’s digital world do require new skills and an entrepreneurial mentality. But it is also just a new manifestation of change – albeit highly disruptive – which good leaders will absorb, understand and navigate like any other.

“Rather than being in fear of digital disruption, you should be full of optimism and ready to embrace it,” said Donald.

I hope to see you soon.

Matthew

www.twitter.com/criticaleyeuk

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