Leadership in the Digital Age

By Kemal Brown,

Characteristics of CEOs of the present and future

There is a rather witty image circulating on the Internet asking a poignant question: Who led the digital transformation for your organisation? The response options are:

1) CEO

2) CIO

3) COVID-19

While comical, it illustrates an important truth. In many ways, human beings are reactionary; we seek cures for known ills. While history does give us a window into the future at a macro level, we cannot wholesomely predict it. Change is the only predictable element of the future. Change is the sole constant across businesses, societies, cultures, and time.

Naturally, we dislike change and revel in the comfort of the familiar. Unfortunately, this attitude does not augur well for our current reality wrought with disruptions, which seemingly cripples old industries and births new ones on a whim.

What happens when leaders refuse to read the writing on the wall? Kodak’s story may paint a picture.

The tale of Kodak

Kodak was once a household name in film photography and, believe it or not, the inventor of the first digital camera. This invention would later spell demise for the firm, as they were slow to develop and monetise the solution for fear of cannibalising their own dominant market position in film. They let the invention sit, while their competitors created their own. If Kodak’s leadership had been less fearful and more attuned to change the company could very well still be a dominant player today.

However, the reality is quite different. Forbes magazine attributed Kodak’s failure to “Kodak management’s inability to see digital photography as a disruptive technology, even as its researchers extended the boundaries of the technology, this would continue for decades.” These examples are all around us. Blockbuster had the same fate with the birth of Netflix. The faces of many buildings in and around Kingston bear the names of long-forgotten companies. Companies that either adjusted too late or faltered due to lapses in succession planning or a multiplicity of other reasons. However, one thing is clear: All problems are leadership problems. Leadership, or the lack thereof, explains both the rise of long-running empires like Rome, and also their demise.

Mindset shift

Leaders don’t have the luxury of clinging to comfort. We must, as Steve Jobs once said, analyse the information gifted by the past and use it to “see what is not yet written on the page”. If we are busy creating the future there is no need to fear it. The present worries of most CEOs centre on the race to digitally transform their organisation to adapt to a world in which a touch can be toxic, and normative ways of doing business aren’t in line with the demands of the new consumer.

The Internet is the present and future, and those that ignored it for so long find themselves bewildered with choices, the outcome of which may seem hard to predict — though it need not be. We live in an age in which information is abundant. Leaders must take a deep dive to garner valuable insights to help them chart a path forward.

Our ever-evolving reality calls for a novel type of leadership, acceptance of the place of technology in amplifying talent, a focus on data and its utility for apt decision-making, and, above all, a belief that ‘the new’ brings progress and not problems.

Paradigm shifts are a natural progression of life and society. The Agrarian Age gave way to the Industrial, and the Industrial is now giving way to the Digital.

Thomas Friedman once said the world is flat. Proponents of the Fourth and Fifth Industrial Revolutions would comfortably shave a few more millimetres off its height.

The world has shifted to digital technologies and digital ways of doing; organisations that do not ‘digitally transform’ will be left behind.

But what is ‘digital transformation’? Salesforce defines it as the process of using digital technologies to create new — or modify existing — business processes, culture, and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements. From management and customer engagement to payments and communication, digital plays a role.

COVID-19 has escalated the necessary pace of adoption, and so many are searching for quick fixes, throwing technology at human problems. What’s needed is an integrated approach that includes stakeholders in the business, and where decisions are made on technical adoption only when value can be added by said technology.

Here are a few strategies to help CEOs become successful digital leaders:

Agile leadership

Successful leaders understand the importance of staying relevant and competitive. This type of leadership is only possible when a leader is open to change and has an agile mindset. Leading with agility means being flexible and forward-thinking.

It will be necessary for leaders to consistently learn new skills and experiment with tools to learn, relearn, and create their unique approaches to digital transformation. While technical competence is a requirement, it is the integration of technology with existing business and human processes that will yield the best results. Learn about data, digital media, online payments, redefine your business model towards efficiency leveraging automation, and refine the customer journey so it is fluid, responsive, and inclusive. Technology assists with all of this, and because of the plethora of tools and approaches and the changes that are sure to come, a flexible approach will be essential for long-term success.

Empower employees innovate, execute

Digital transformation is more about talent than technology. Therefore, leaders must learn to create a new culture in which innovation thrives. By communicating with purpose and direction leaders can find new ways to foster and drive employee innovation and experimentation to continuously evolve to meet the dynamic needs of the Digital Age. Individuals can accomplish extraordinary things when a solid vision drives them. By creating an environment that provides platforms to allow people to experiment with ideas and business models leaders will provide the support required for teams to iterate their way to success. Good ideas can come from anywhere in a company. Experiment with internal digital surveys to crowdsource great ideas.

Shared accountability

Everyone has a role to play in securing the future of your organisation. A hierarchical, top-down approach is no longer sustainable as leaders cannot take ownership of everything. An environment of accountability and trust is, therefore, paramount. Organisations should aim to create leaders at all levels by encouraging a culture of shared responsibility and decentralised decision-making.

Quick, calculated decision-making

In the digital economy, speed is everything. The first to market with new ideas often captures the majority of the market or mind share. Leaders need to create processes that make their teams more agile and to equip them with all the necessary tools to handle sudden changes or to challenge the status quo. This could mean allowing your team to work virtually and investing in a software stack that allows for fluid communication and project management.

Digital leadership requires the ability to think fast and to handle pressure and constant changes. However, speed must be balanced by rationality because of the domino effect. The higher up the decision, the more profound the impact; be it positive or negative.

Have a digital transformation strategy

American consultant and author Jim Collins notes that we must ensure we are headed in the right direction. We do this by having a strategy.

Most organisations still operate by old playbooks. Effective leaders need to be able to keep pace with the changes in their industry and the world at large. They must learn how to navigate and gain a deeper understanding of digital business models and how they can benefit and reinvent their business for future success. Leaders can do this by leveraging different technologies and tools to change the way they lead and operate, whether it be transforming to virtual learning, virtual onboarding of new team members, or using different platforms to communicate more effectively and efficiently.

So what does effective leadership look like in the Digital Age? In sum, leadership will require new approaches, mindsets, and tools to aggressively redefine strategies and business models leveraging digital technologies for efficiency and scale. It is not easy to develop any skill or make changes overnight; however, the inertia of past success can lead to future failure if leaders remain stagnant. By adopting some of what I have discussed, you will not only thrive and gain a competitive advantage, but, in effect, future-proof your company; that is preparing for it, rather than fearing it. We must endeavour to have one hand firmly on the present page, and the other in the process of turning it.

Kemal Brown is an international speaker and trainer, serial entrepreneur, and digital innovator. He is also the president & CEO of Digita Global Marketing Limited, a Caribbean-based, globally-minded digital marketing and technology agency. He serves as chief learning officer of Digita University, an online learning management and experience platform centred on optimising teams through online learning for organisations of all types and sizes. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or www.digitaglobal.com.

Photo: Kemal Brown

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