Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
October 24, 2019

Tech. 2019: Do You Have the Right Leadership Mindset for Digital Transformation?

For better or worse, over the past decade technology and digitisation has vastly transformed our daily lives, along with the fortunes of organisations across all industries and sectors. According to a new Tech. research report, retail leaders across major markets spanning the UK, France, Germany and the US agreed that a new leadership mindset is required to oversee successful digital transformation in their organisations.

So what is this new leadership mindset? How do leaders handle the two-sided coin of digital disruption and opportunity? I hosted a panel discussion at Tech. 2019 on “Leadership in Digital Commerce,” featuring the unique perspectives of four distinguished executives on tackling these leadership challenges:

Nancy Cruickshank, SVP of Digital Business Transformation at Carlsberg Group
Jason Forbes, Global Chief Digital & Media Officer at Coty
Josh Bottomley, Global Head of Digital at HSBC
Jacob Aqraou, investor in high-growth consumer tech companies and former SVP of eBay Marketplaces EMEA

Drawing on their shared backgrounds in both the corporate and entrepreneurial worlds, the panelists’ observations and experiences came together to produce a practical leadership toolbox for the digital world. Here are some key learnings for leaders to consider as they develop a new mindset for successful digital transformation.

1. Leading digital transformation is 10% data, 20% technology and 70% people.
“In traditional organisations, even the brightest people can have little familiarity with the digital tools and approaches to help transform a business,” said Cruickshank. And even the most accomplished leaders sometimes inadvertently block innovation with their leadership style.

Her advice for adopting a new, transformation-friendly leadership mindset:

Cut out the jargon
Over-communicate
Be inclusive and encourage diversity
Ensure transparency on data-sharing
Put digital at the core of strategy

“It’s important to build capabilities internally,” she said. “It’s not always about age but about mindset. People who have been there for 30 years may be the most progressive.” 

With the support of the Carlsberg CEO, she has used a series of lighthouse projects — short-term, well-defined initiatives that focus on product management skills and agility — to create a positive culture for digital transformation. Starting small, tracking progress and then framing new KPIs allows things to “start scrappy but then catch fire quickly.”

“You have to take people along to buy into it and believe it,” she added. “Once the tipping point comes, everyone wants to own it.”

Tech. 2019: Do You Have the Right Leadership Mindset for Digital Transformation?

From left: Grant Duncan moderates the panel featuring Jacob Aqraou, Jason Forbes, Nancy Cruikshank and Josh Bottomley.

2. There are three guide rails to leading a transformation.
Forbes articulated three guide rails — language, Agile and data — to successful leadership in a digital transformation.

First, while more than 50 percent of net revenue growth comes from e-commerce for many brands, differing language definitions across functions and partners is leaving growth on the table. “Leaders need to apply consistent language; ASINS, LBBs and PCOGS from Amazon e-commerce teams need to be understood equally well by marketing, ops and finance to realise growth.”  

Second, determining the types of data (first-, second- or third-party) that drives growth is critical to decision-making. Forbes noted the arrival of a third data era, with heightened discipline in predicting and rejecting duplicative data sets and focusing on iterative retailer/sales data partnerships. In best cases, Forbes cited an 11x return on advertising spending with retailer site pixel drops, pointing to the power of sales data feedback loops in creative and media activation.

Finally, Forbes sees Agile as an approach that can be extended across functions to drive faster decision-making and velocity, applying key rituals like Standups and Retrospectives. He shared a brand example using Dual-track Agile to deliver a microsite in just three two-week sprints, with research, marketing and sales function inclusion.  

3. It’s not just about digital transformation, but laying a foundation for continuous change.
Bottomley advocated a leadership mindset that views digital transformation not as an event, but as the new normal. “The key factors are getting the tech and data to work early on in a transformation and redefining leadership and the organisation around this,” he said.

His previous experience at Google taught him the value of striving to continuously make things better across everything you do by establishing cross-functional and empowered teams to address your biggest challenges and opportunities.

Thanks to a highly supportive board and culture at HSBC, Bottomley was able to devote two to three years creating digital roles that existed in other industries but not in banking. Then, building on that initiative, he went on to create roles that didn’t exist anywhere else — an astonishing 2,000 new positions in total.

Some of the challenges Bottomley encountered included compensation structures for digital and legacy talent. His number-one priority, though, was elevating knowledge across all talent. “Culture is important, but shared knowledge is more important,” he said. “Getting new people on the bus is great, but if you’re the only person with the knowledge, your chances of success are lower.”

4. Learning is the basis of the new leadership archetype.
Leaders need to go from “know it all” to “learn it all,” said Aqraou. “You need to rethink how you spend your time to really understand your customers’ needs and create the right organisation with the right team.”

He pointed to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella as an example of a leadership archetype based on listening, humility and an orientation toward learning. He cited Amazon as a model for taking customer feedback seriously, observing how it “always finds its way back to the customer support team, who can disable the buy button if there’s a problem.”

To redesign your organisation from being top-down to customer-first, Aqraou advised that new skill-sets (UX/AI) need to be brought in at the senior level to revolutionise thinking. “Ensure that your teams are curious, interested in the next thing,” he said. “If everyone on your team is a ‘maintainer,’ the organisation will go nowhere.”

A final thought
So many organisations get caught up in the technology needs that they can overlook the people part of digital transformation, which, as the panelists underscored, is arguably the most important. Leaders in retail and beyond need to understand the human aspect of digital, from how to delight customers across channels to inspiring their teams to learn and innovate.

Grant Duncan
leads Spencer Stuart’s Digital Practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, advising companies and boards on the leadership challenges and opportunities brought about by digital transformation. He also leads the firm’s UK Technology, Media & Telecommunications Practice with a particular focus on media and content businesses. Reach him via email and follow him on LinkedIn.