I spent a very interesting couple of hours last week moderating a roundtable on “Effective leadership in the Digital Age”.

The discussions were based around Econsultancy’s latest best practice guide on the topic.

Here are my top five takeaways from the session.

N.B. The roundtable operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can’t mention the individuals or companies that attended the session.

However, included in the audience were senior leadership from well known financial services, brewing, travel, branded consumer goods and B2B services companies. An interesting mix indeed.

While the perspectives varied, the main themes were almost universally agreed upon.

1. Digital business is just business

This one is fairly straightforward. Doing business to the best of our ability means digital has to sit at the heart of your company’s thinking.

That said, most people think of digital as a visible layer over the top of the “real” business – one that is focused on the customer interaction. These people have little or no understanding that the operating system of doing business is changing. 

Being digital isn’t just about digitizing what you already have.

It can involve the integration of digital technology into virtually everything, which may require whole scale changes to the foundational components of a business, from its operating model to its infrastructure.

This means that business leaders from the CEO down need to be literate in the opportunities that technology offers and visibly back initiatives. 

2. The digital leader is also an educator

Digital experts often have a passion for their chosen field. A fine attribute, but one that, left unfettered, can lead to problems.

It can be fatal to assume that everyone is onboard from the beginning or that everyone understands what’s even possible (and is prepared to jump on board).

Digital leaders need to think of themselves as educators and facilitators as much as they consider themselves builders and implementers.

This means having a vision based on business values that can be communicated in a way that people across the business can understand.

Leaders also need to preempt the inevitable territorial battles down the road by preparing the ground work well in advance. 

Crucially it’s about getting the business to understand what being digital-first really means and to move away from a “transformation” perspective which typically defines a disruptive process with a defined end.

Real change to business practice, real adoption of a digital-first philosophy, means that the process never ends.

As one attendee said, “When I started I felt I was plowing the field with my face,” adding: 

You need to be systematic. By understanding how your business works, what they value and who really pulls the levers you can eventually make good business arguments and be heard.

It was also universally acknowledged that a company will struggle to realise the benefits of digital if it doesn’t have a proper strategy and support from the top that infiltrates through the whole organisation.

3. Culture is the ace card

Everyone felt culture was the ace card.

Digital thinking is about changing the culture of the business and the way it operates rather than creating a technology sticky plaster. Because we all know sticky plasters always fall off in the end. 

Technology should be considered an enabler of a much larger process – becoming truly customer-centric. 

To be truly customer-centric takes deep cultural change. Everyone in the organization needs to think in terms of the customer and have the empowerment to act.

This means that companies have to hire not just for skills but also for behavioral traits such as agility, problem solving and collaborative working. 

4. Getting business buy-in can entail a range of strategies

Business buy-in, as we have already mentioned, is key and isn’t always easy.

Having a CEO or other board supporter was seen as crucial for rapid success, but many attendees had tried a range of other strategies to get the buy-in needed.

Establish a digital steering committee

You’ll need support and you’ll need the perspective and expertise of a wide range of stakeholders. Don’t think you can do it all by yourself.

Take time to find people who have the influence to make things happen. This isn’t the same as having a big job title.

Start with smaller projects, with low visibility and lower perceived risk

Start with smaller projects that deliver real measurable business value and use those to build consensus. Success breeds success. 

As one attendee put it:

I developed a strategy of digital by stealth. I looked for manageable projects that were other people’s problems and I helped deliver a digital answer.

It’s amazing the goodwill you can build quickly when you make other people look good.

Look at others for inspiration

It’s hard to be first but it’s worse to be last. That’s a reality in business so use this to your advantage.

Make people aware of what others are doing and the value they are creating. Ideally take examples in your sector but look further afield too.

You may have to offer more translation but it might get you ahead of the curve in your sector. 

If you have board level buy-in then ask for a “digital tax”

Even if you have a business case established and have support from the board, making it happen can still be difficult.

To encourage people to support your digital projects and focus on a successful outcome, split the costs among all those departments that stand to benefit.

If this is also aligned with targets and remuneration you’ll have a firm footing for success. 

5. Maintenance is just as important as change

Organisations have unique issues depending where they sit on the digital maturity curve. 

Most are still struggling to fill the gaps in their capability to manage digital implementation effectively.

Econsultancy’s digital maturity model has three stages: emergent, managed and optimised

In the first instance, an organisation has to establish the foundations of its digital capability and invest to build out the essential elements such as an ecommerce platform.

The organisation is then in a position to sell its products online and create new digital user experiences and revenue transactions. 

However, once essential core capabilities are built and the value proved, BAU (business as usual) becomes an increasingly important part of change management.

Optimizing assets to improve performance is essential if marketing and business KPIs are to be achieved.

This requires organisation focus and investment in the right level of resources and a collaborative change process that works so as to meet increased demands of digital from all areas of the business. 

One mistake that companies keep making is to not properly plan for developing and scaling digital change so as to maintain platforms, tools and applications once they have been built and to ensure the digital operational lights are kept on.

What was also clear at the roundtable was how far most businesses still have to travel, not just in terms of delivering customer-centric digital experiences but in terms of knowing that they even need to.

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This post was co-authored by Chris Ketley from Beechgate Consulting.