Digitise or die? Like it or not—this is the business mantra of the decade.
According to John Chambers, Executive Chairman of Cisco Systems, the truth is at least 40% of all businesses (yes, you read that right) will close in the next ten years unless they reimagine themselves and accommodate new technologies.
It’s no surprise global spending on digital transformation is skyrocketing, with researchers predicting it will reach $2.8 trillion by 2025.
As technological advancements accelerate, the imperative for businesses to keep up will determine whether they continue to exist.
What is digital transformation?
We can all agree digital transformation is the buzzword of the decade. But what exactly is it? A large IT programme. The introduction of a new sales platform? Or a website rebuild.
Yes and no.
Think bigger, think beyond technology, think holistic.
Digital transformation is a journey a business undertakes when it reviews and evaluates its entire eco-system of processes, systems, and operational structures. With the view to boost efficiency, increase productivity, scale and grow to generate greater profits with a future-proofed business structure.
Why effective leadership is a catalyst for successful digital transformation?
Forbes argues that digital transformation is 80% soft skills and only 20% technology.
Indeed, the digital revolution demands a new breed of executive decision-makers.
Research conducted by MIT Sloan found that over half of digitally maturing companies say they need new leaders to succeed in a digital environment—ones that embrace change and are willing to take risks and fail.
Furthermore, in a recent study, 45% of organisations said their CEO drives the digital transformation roadmap.
Let’s face it—if you want to future-proof business with smart digital transformation, adept leadership is more crucial than ever.
What role do leaders play during digital transformation?
One of the biggest misconceptions is that you need to be a technologist in order to lead digital transformation—this isn’t true. Yes, technical expertise is very important, but successful transformation depends on far more than installing new technologies.
For example, McKinsey observes that the purpose of digital transformation is to generate value for the business (as opposed to going digital). To this end, successful CEOs look beyond their current businesses and focus on reimagining where transformative value will flourish.
Hence, why the best leaders pursue digital transformation not merely to adopt new technologies but to enhance the customer experience, drive efficiencies, and create an enticing employee experience. While also building resilience into their company so it will grow and thrive long-term.
Moreover, engaged leaders don’t view digital transformation as a task to get off the desk. Instead, they take ownership and responsibility for driving the strategic direction, ensuring the entire organisation is on the same page, and travelling on the transformation journey together.
Here’s a few leadership no-no’s during digital transformation
Taking your hands-off
As a leader, it’s imperative you remain actively engaged in the digital transformation process, even if you assign a dedicated transformation lead. Remember, leaders aren’t just decision-makers—they represent the organisation’s commitment to change, which requires playing a pivotal role in setting the strategic direction.
We get it—when embarking on large-scale transformation, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and become over-focused on the smaller stuff. But, getting under your people’s feet can cause demotivation and a lack of confidence. And it’s also a massive time drain. Instead, foster a flexible approach to address emerging issues and concerns promptly. By entrusting teams with autonomy, leaders can concentrate on high-level decision-making and strategy development, ensuring the organisation’s overall success.
Focusing on the short-term
Leadership isn’t about short-term fixes—it’s about long-term vision. Moreover, forward-thinking leaders plan for succession, ensuring continuity beyond their tenure. They allocate time and resources judiciously, especially in an era where both are scarce.
Wise leaders don’t shy away from addressing weaknesses revealed by the digital journey. Instead, they confront any blockers or pain points head-on, turning them into opportunities for growth and improvement.
Six leadership principles to deliver seamless digital transformation
Technology is just one piece of the transformation puzzle. Human dynamics are a critical cornerstone during any type of business change. Yet are often underestimated in importance. The staggering rate of transformation failures is a testament to this oversight. Research underscores that employee resistance, a lack of awareness, and the fear of change are major obstacles to successful transformation.
The following section delves into pivotal leadership approaches and how to implement them effectively to ensure you meet your digital transformation goals.
1. Take responsibility for strategic direction.
Leaders serve as the guiding compass for their organisations. By taking the helm, you’re committing to instilling a sense of purpose, clarity, and unity among your teams, motivating them to contribute to the transformation’s success.
What you should do:
- Effective leadership starts at the top—this means leading from the front, being visible and getting involved, not hanging back at the sidelines.
- Company culture begins with you, so it’s your responsibility to set the tone.
- Inspire and motivate your people by championing collaboration and openness and giving credit when credit is due.
- Commit to active listening, where you focus on understanding feedback in that precise situation rather than just focusing on your own predetermined response.
2. Engage in meaningful communication with employees.
The crux of digital transformation lies in effective communication. Leaders can’t merely send out occasional emails and expect engagement. To secure employee buy-in and active participation, CEOs and executive teams must consistently articulate the necessity for the transformation programme. This means not only promoting its benefits for the company and its workforce, but also acknowledging consequences of inertia and disengagement.
What you should do:
- Consistently convey the urgency of change, and why employee engagement is critical to success.
- Communicate the strategic direction, solicit feedback, and build buy-in, fostering a shared purpose and commitment to the transformation journey.
- Cultivate the organisation’s culture by shaping the tone and celebrating achievements.
3. Lead by Example
Successful digital transformation requires commitment and adaptability across the entire organisation. To achieve this, leaders must demonstrate the importance of change and innovation, motivating others to follow suit. In being visible, you can foster greater trust, inspire confidence, and reinforce the cultural shift necessary for successful digital adaptation.
What you should do:
- Be an early adopter of new digital tools or technologies relevant to your industry. For instance, if your business is transitioning to a cloud-based project management system, you can lead the way by actively using and endorsing the system.
- Acknowledge and celebrate successes, whether successfully implementing a new system or achieving a critical milestone or goal.
- Reinforce the idea that digital transformation is a collective effort and that everyone’s contributions are immensely valued and recognised.
4. Foster a culture of innovation.
It’s no secret the pace of technological change is not slowing down. This means organisations must constantly evolve (if they want to stick around for the long term). But change is hard for humans—we’re creatures of habit. Therefore, building a high-trust environment that values diverse perspectives will enhance problem-solving and ensure the business remains competitive and resilient.
What you should do:
- Foster a high-trust culture (valuing everyone’s opinion) and empower self-determination.
- Lead by asking questions and allowing space for all voices to be heard. For example, during team meetings, ask, “What if we approached this problem from a completely different angle?” This encourages employees to think beyond conventional solutions.
- Incentivise innovation by adding KPIs and bonuses for employees who review and adapt strategies.
5. Champion collaboration and openness
Digital transformation is rarely a one-team endeavour—it impacts everyone in the organisation, from the factory floor to the boardroom. Employees need to be consulted and supported when transitioning to using new systems and ways of working. Therefore, it’s a top priority for leaders to engage and gain input from a variety of departments when implementing new solutions—not just IT.
What you should do:
- Create safe spaces for ideation, brainstorming and peer-to-peer communication.
- Inspire and motivate your people by championing and celebrating collaboration and openness. E.g., Offer prizes or incentives for innovative ideas, effective cross-department teamwork, or successful knowledge sharing.
- Encourage employees from different departments to work together on projects or brainstorm ideas. E.g., Designate specific days or time slots each month for cross-functional collaboration.
6. Measure Progress and Adapt
Several challenges can arise during digital transformation, prompting the need for a strategic reevaluation. For example, data quality issues, scope creep, insufficient budget, or talent can all impede transformation. That’s why measuring progress is essential—it allows you to identify bottlenecks, re-allocate resources wisely, and maintain accountability throughout the transformation journey.
What you should do:
- Identify specific KPIs that align with your digital transformation goals. These could include metrics like revenue growth, customer acquisition, cost savings, or employee productivity.
- Work closely with your senior leadership team to assess progress regularly and make collective adaptation decisions.
- Consider engaging external experts in digital transformation to provide fresh perspectives and insights.
Asking for support
The digital revolution demands a paradigm shift in executive leadership. CEOs must possess unique skills, combining traditional leadership with technical know-how.
Sounds like a full-time job.
The problem is most CEOs’ are already working at capacity, simply running their businesses. Hence, digital transformation can be a considerable extra to add to an already overflowing workload.
Sure, it’s tempting to take the approach, ‘Oh, I can handle this myself’. But the danger is that the day job will (naturally) take priority.
Bringing in specialist support can free CEOs to run their businesses and have the necessary amount of time to lead digital transformation. These external experts bring a fresh perspective and a wealth of experience to tackle the intricate challenges of digital transformation. In fact, a staggering 88% of businesses now rely on third-party providers for at least one aspect of their digital transformation journey.
However, selecting the right transformation partner is crucial.
Getting it wrong can lead to project delays, budget overruns, and misalignment with business goals.
Choose experienced digital transformation consultants who can provide strategic, technical and operational expertise. Their knowledge, adaptability and proven success record will mean they can do the heavy lifting such as mapping processes, identifying efficiency opportunities, and advising, plus implementing governance structures and technical solutions—enabling you, the CEO, to do what you do best—lead.