Michael Nutley
Michael Nutley 22 June 2023

Digital Leader Needed; People Skills Essential, Most Business Backgrounds Acceptable

Almost all businesses have realised they need a designated leader to drive their digital maturity. But what skills should that leader possess, and what background should they come from?

According to the recent report from London Research, Digital transformation is dead – Long live business agility, just over three-quarters of businesses (76%) have appointed digital leaders and established teams to help them with digital change.

The report, in partnership with full-service digital transformation and marketing agency Paragon DCX, also found a further 22% are planning to do so.

“If you’ve got people helping to drive the strategic agenda who understand the changing landscape, and who understand how important digital and technology are to giving their employer a competitive advantage, you can achieve great outcomes and really meet your customers’ needs,” digital and technology leader, and chair of BCS Agile Methods Sathpal Singh comments in the report.

To learn more about what it takes to be a successful digital leader, sign up to the webinar on 29th June - Digital transformation is dead – Long live business agility.

Who Should Lead the Transformation Initiative?

But the same research found little consensus over what background the owner of the organisation’s transformation agenda should have. There was almost no difference between the proportion of businesses choosing their CTO/CIO (17%), chief digital officer, CEO (both 16%), CMO, COO (both 14%), or head of digital transformation (13%) for this crucial role.

In the report, founder and CEO of The Digital Transformation People Tim Ellis argues that one of the reasons so many digital transformation initiatives fail is that organisations “lack a dedicated leader unencumbered by a functional perspective or lack of breadth across disciplines.”

There is a clear need within the C-suite for a new leadership role dedicated to orchestrating transformation right across the organisation. We are seeing a surge in demand for specialist generalist chief transformation officers capable of building strong coalitions and collaboration across silos for new value creation, efficiency and organisational agility,” he said.

The report’s findings back up this conclusion. It found near-unanimity over the personal and management qualities needed by a successful digital leader. These are:
    •    The ability to challenge the status quo
    •    The ability to approach challenges creatively
    •    The ability to work well with other stakeholders and to influence them
    •    Having a clear vision of what they want to achieve
    •    The ability to adapt quickly to change and new processes
    •    The ability to adapt quickly to new technology

Commenting in the report, Peter Abraham, co-author of Building the Agile Business Through Digital Transformation, and co-founder of data-driven growth consultancy Crank, talks about the growing trend for businesses to run as “dual operating systems, with business as usual on one side and change initiatives on the other”.

Transformation is what happens as a result of small gains impacting customers, employees, products, services and/or operations, and therefore the resulting revenue and profit,” he argues. “But we’ll need to identify a leader with a diversity of experience to organise and deliver those change projects. This may be where the chief transformation officer role becomes more prominent alongside a cycle of change, rather than one-and-done initiatives.”

Board-Level Understanding is the Answer

The other thing any digital leader needs if they’re to succeed is support from senior management. The report found that there’s no single overriding issue hampering organisations’ efforts at digital transformation.

But almost half of respondents (40%) say lack of buy-in/investment from the company board and leadership team is a significant challenge. Two more major challenges – lack of skills and knowledge (46%), and legacy technology (43%) – are clearly the result of insufficient investment. And investment is a board decision.

On top of that, three of the other challenges identified in the report are a company culture which isn’t conducive to innovation and change, the wrong mindset, and a siloed organisational structure. All three are the result of insufficient buy-in at the highest level.

What a lot of organisations want now is people in their C-suites who totally get this stuff,” Singh says. “In the past people didn’t understand it, they didn’t think it made sense to make greater investment because technology was seen as a cost. That’s the shift we‘re seeing. Nowadays tech is seen as a clear enabler, and as your competitive advantage if you get the strategic investment right.”

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