Here’s a weird fact for you: your boss is probably the single biggest barrier to transforming your business. If it isn’t the boss, it’s those pesky senior stakeholders, who are normally entrenched in some archaic mindset or other.
This really is the way of things for so many companies. It’s a common complaint that I’ve heard over the years, and I know from talking to senior digital folk that it’s still a major problem for many.
Econsultancy does a lot of work for clients around digital transformation, organisational change and business restructuring. In the past year demand for our services has gone through the roof, but even when there is clear buy-in from a switched-on senior lieutenant, projects can still be scuttled by change-resistant board members, or the person at the very top.
Why is this? Typically it’s a combination of myopia, fear and apathy. It is as understandable as it is problematic. Normally a boss is employed to have a vision, to be bold, and to care about the long-term health of the business. Unfortunately the pace of change in the past 15 years has left some people behind.
The reality for people who have not adapted their views to mirror that of actual consumer behaviour is quite straightforward: either they wake up and smell the coffee, and drive change, or they let the business wither on the vine, and take responsibility for that. There are too many examples of companies that have gone bust precisely because of a lack of vision, and too much dithering.
So how do you get around the problem?
It’s tricky, when the problem is the boss, or director, or other senior management. But, it is in their personal interests – as well as the interests of the company – to try to restructure the business around the needs of the modern consumer. They just need a little gentle persuasion.
The alternative is for them to live in a dreamworld, where they think that internet / ecommerce / mobile is some kind of fad. It would be genuinely laughable if it wasn’t so very serious, given the countless companies that have gone to the wall due to this kind of wilful delusion.
The best thing about the internet has occurred in the past five years: the empowerment of consumers. It started off with blogs, and customer reviews, and then social media usage skyrocketed to the point where everybody has a) a network and b) a voice. It’s only going in one direction.
What this means, I hope, is that businesses will shift their focus towards customer retention. This requires a business structure – and a company culture – that is customer-centric. You need the right kind of staff with the right kind of skills. And you need a boss who believes in The Way Of The Customer. It’s highly profitable, after all, and bosses usually love profit.
So how can you persuade the boss / senior stakeholders to support real change?
Firstly, there are three things you need to know…
Don’t pretend that you have all of the right answers
I think this is probably the first key thing to understand. If you want to persuade the boss that you are right, you probably won’t get anywhere fast. It’s not about you, or what’s ‘right’. And it certainly shouldn’t be about your boss being ‘wrong’. There’s a great article here on the paradox of influence, which is about listening first, rather than trying to steamroller your boss into submission (which won’t work).
Understand the mechanics of fear
Your boss is only human, and is probably scared of being found out, of not having the right answers, of not understanding ‘tech’, or of not being visionary enough to remain in situ. Your boss may fear losing influence, if organisational change / digital transformation is pushed through. At a more obvious / personal level, your boss may fear losing the financial rewards that are part and parcel of being the boss. But ultimately this is all about taking risks. Risks are risky! And that drives fear...
Understand why business people hate change
The need for change makes people feel uncertain. It may lead to a loss of control, which they will resist, and a loss of status. Change also requires work, and a commitment to see things through. Change for big businesses can be a process that lasts for years. Moreover, change can be damaging and people can get hurt. Some people in the business may not survive the change. Again, this is about risk, and we humans are programmed to be cautious.
With the above in mind, we can now approach things in the right way! I asked the question earlier on Twitter, and a few nuggets of wisdom came back my way. The main thing to remember is that your number one priority is to communicate things effectively, and to that end, I would focus on the following 15 tips, or the five others underneath if all else fails...
1. Be confident, be positive
The tone in which you deliver your pitch needs to be bullish and enthusiastic. If you are communicating the threats then follow up with a positive statement.
2. Do the maths
Make a business case. Look ahead and be strategic, but let the numbers do the talking. And whatever you do, make sure the numbers add up. Don’t make any silly mistakes. Metrics matter too, not just the financials.
3. Remember Monty, Patton, Rommel
Figure out various plans of attack, then give the powers that be some options and let them have ultimate control over the method of attack. You plan, they sign off your plan.
4. Don’t blind them with science
One of the very biggest problems is that many senior people ‘do not understand tech’. This is nonsense, of course, as we’re not asking them to configure a Linux server. Help them to understand how consumers use ‘tech’, without going into unnecessary levels of detail. If necessary, resort to metaphors.
5. Avoid jargon as you might a snake pit
Talk in plain English, as much as is humanly possible. Avoid buzzwords, as they can drive people to acts of violence, your boss included.
6. Sell the benefits
Focus on the business metrics and KPIs (“if we do X then Y will happen”), not the fluffy things (“our customers will love this!”). Show lots of real world examples of how similar suggestions have worked out for other companies.
7. Look over your shoulder
What are your competitors doing? What aren’t they doing? What could your business be doing? You can play on the fear of missing out, and make your boss feel jealous of the neighbours.
8. Look beyond your own sector
How are non-competitive firms excelling at organisational change, or brand repositioning? What are the things they have done to transform their fortunes?
9. Look over the horizon
Digital transformation is a long-term game, and your boss might not have the stomach for it, especially if he / she is planning on retiring to the South of France anytime soon. This is where other senior stakeholders need to come to the fore. For this to happen, there needs to be a clear vision, and clear support for that vision, over a period of (most likely) years. Remember that digital has fundamentally changed people's lives, mainly for the better, and that applies in a work and leisure context. You can adapt your business to mirror changing habits over the long-term.
10. Bring along an independent voice
This is one thing that we’re very good at, and it’s one of our more popular services. Shout up if you want some help!
11. Bring along one of your peers
Let’s say you are an ecommerce manager. Wouldn’t it be interesting to mine the brain of another ecommerce manager who has been through a period of transition, which has had positive results? Again, this kind of matchmaking is something we have helped clients with in the past.
12. Be transparent
Honesty is a virtue, and it’s much better to tell it like it is, than to dress things up. Take the above suggestion: an ecommerce manager who has being through a period of pain can (and should) talk about the challenges involved. There will be pain, prior to gain.
13. Empower them
Senior management aren’t there by accident. Most of the time, they will have earned their way to the top. These are often highly capable people who just need to adjust their mindsets. Point them at our Modern Marketing Manifesto and help them see the light.
14. Align your ideas with their motivations
When profits go up it is normally the boss / senior management / shareholders who come out on top, as far as bonuses (and kudos) are concerned. You shouldn’t need to be too explicit to make these people put two and two together.
15. Be quick, or be dead
Make them understand that there’s no time like the present, and remember that big digital transformation projects for big companies can last for years. Procrastinators be damned.
Alternatively, if the above ideas don't work, then try the following...
16. Expressive modern dance
Another fine suggestion by @TomGriffola.
If you do manage to convince the boss through the power of interpretive modern dance then be sure to email me! My thanks to all who suggested ways of persuading the boss via Twitter.
What other tactics work? Do let me know in the comments area below. And, if you do need some external help, remember that Econsultancy can figure out a digital transformation strategy that will work for your business.