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The new-age CEO: three steps to effective digital leadership

Wed, 31st May 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

It's an interesting time to be a CEO. Given the pace that digital innovation is disrupting industries, it's not surprising that digital enablement is quickly becoming a top CEO priority.

But most chief executives of organisations looking to become digitally enabled realise the serious challenges involved in leading such a business transformation.

Becoming a digital leader isn't simply a matter of being tech savvy. It's about creating an agile organisation that can detect what type of change is essential and respond quickly with the most competitive solution.

In the recent 2017 Harvey Nash/KPMG CIO Survey, managing director of Harvey Nash Australia says, “the IT leaders who will succeed are the ones who can deal with this ambiguity, working across multi-discipline teams to a common goal."

Additional findings from the survey reveal, “59% of CIOs say their role is becoming increasingly more strategic”.

There are three ways CEOs can manage the digital transition:

Define where change is needed most

The digital starting point will depend on the existing environment, but typically falls into one of the following categories: driving customer engagement, digital product and service development, enhancing operational performance, and preparing for disruptive new business models.

Developing a clear point of view on the opportunities or threats in each area will suggest which capabilities need the most attention and where to concentrate investment.

Choreograph the change

A common problem in corporate digital enablement efforts is the tendency for them to be ad-hoc and uncoordinated. Without the buy-in and orchestration from the top-down, the best initiatives won't get the support they need.

Breaking down big picture goals into executable tactics that support company goals requires clear direction from company leadership.

As a Harvard Business Review article states, “Only the CEO can manage this process by breaking down the appropriate boundaries, giving teams permission to set new rules, and providing the strategic framework to buttress the new order.

However, it could be delegated to a dedicated ‘orchestrator' in the form of a Chief Digital Officer, only if that person is fully empowered in the name of the CEO.

Alternatively, there are managed service firms that offer consulting and advisory services dedicated to developing holistic digital strategies and program of works, and who provide governance over the delivery of the program, ensuring technology investments are aligned with business outcomes.

The organisations that will digitally mature the quickest are those that tie their digital strategies closely to their overall strategy.

Empower people

Digital leaders don't inspire the workforce by throwing the words ‘disruption' and ‘innovation' around; they communicate the importance of change, and crucially, make sure they are understood.

Another Harvard Business Review article explains that CEOs who see the importance of being understood make great digital leaders: “Ambiguity is the enemy. When the same words mean different thing to different people the result is Babel, not alignment. Leaders with vision create ‘value vocabularies' that make self-organisation, motivation and alignment easier.

Listening and observing, then, are just as important as communicating. It doesn't matter how simple, clear, or direct the message; if it hasn't been interpreted correctly by the people who are expected to act on it, digital initiatives aren't going to get very far.

The best way to get employees on board and reinforce the digital mission is to lead by example.

Move away from traditional communication tools such as Intranets, noticeboards, and mass email blasts, and instead connect with staff in ‘real time' via social channels and modern collaboration platforms such as Slack, Yammer, and Skype for Business and social channels.

Tapping into digital tools will stimulate free thinking and responsiveness, and it's all part of embedding digital into the fabric of the organisation.

Importantly, it establishes two-way communication and portrays the CEO as someone who is accessible and responsive. The concept of the CEO as ‘the boss' doesn't apply in the digitally enabled enterprise.

Enabling digital

New-age CEOs already think of themselves as digital leaders. They practise what they preach and, in doing so, drive their employees to experiment, innovate, and scale. This is the kind of leadership organisations require to be successful in their digital missions.

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