Can you describe your experience of digital transformation journeys?
Digital transformation journeys can be characterised as exciting and challenging at the same time. They are a business imperative that tests leadership as well as organisational capacity and ambition for change.
When it comes to digital transformational journeys, they impact a few business variables.
For brands to win in the marketplace, they must have a high digital quotient. This is primarily since this is where the consumers are, whether its channels of commerce or of media. Thus, if businesses want to win, they must be digitally adept at winning consumers hearts and minds. If brands are consumer centric, embracing digital technology is critical. At a minimum, follow the consumer. Ideally, lead the consumers and create great value for them.
The second important aspect is the idea of doing things very differently, often at significantly lower cost or at much faster speed. When I think of transformation, the two questions to ask are ‘Is it impacting the top line or brand preference and growth?’ and ‘Is it enabling us to do things more efficiently and reduce cost or increase speed?’ If the answers are yes, then it is the transformation we want.
The third dimension is around people. Digital has unlocked an enormous amount of people potential. In the past, we could have never imagined that I could put up a project and get 50 people to apply almost immediately. That a dozen would be from Asia, a few from Europe and others from the Middle East. That all of them could apply to be a part of a dispersed yet aligned team. Whether internal platforms for flex assignments or external freelance talent – a lot of talent potential can be unleashed. People are bringing their best to bear, and its hugely enabled by technology.
One of the things that I'm very proud of is the impact it's had on people during the transformational journey. It’s not just businesses that we are transforming. It’s the people transformation that is key. New roles, new skills, new careers: all very empowering and inspiring. A wide majority of talented people have found a new mojo in their careers which has been powered by digital transformation, in one way or another. Winning in the future is all about people, it’s about attracting better talent, keeping better talent in play and leveraging technology as an inspirational enabler.
What are your personal experiences and what motivates you when it comes to these transformation journeys?
There are many ways of going from point A to B and usually these are characterised by fast-moving highways. But in general, I like to take the unbeaten road. A hilly ride excites me more, even if it takes a little longer or is a little more arduous. Then more the challenge and more the left field the idea, more exciting it is for me.
Secondly, I love working with people. And we know that all successes are people led. The interesting aspect of digital led transformation is that much of it comes bottom-up, some comes from the centre and of course leadership plays an important role. People are at the heart of any transformation.
What were some of your biggest frustrations during the journey?
Feedback is the breakfast of champions they say, and frustration is the lunch for transformation leaders. When driving big change, hardship is inevitable. Culture is the number one challenge if you ask me. Actually, I would put culture as challenge number one, two and three. One key observation which I always share is that many big companies overestimate their own capability and underestimate the size of the challenge.
All large companies have super smart people, and they are always saying, ‘of course we can do this, and we can do this fast’. On paper it all is very easy because there is an operating model, and people know who does what and how it all falls into place. However, in practice, it is more complex, more tangled and this slows you down.
Two key ideas are those of speed and of context. It’s fashionable to be fast — but it needs to be tailored to the cultural and business context. Just because it works in one company doesn’t mean it can work everywhere. Sometimes, fast is the enemy of excellent. At other times, fast is what you need. Leaders need to understand this and apply their judgement in balancing this tension between speed and excellence. If there are trade-offs, make them with careful consideration. Speed is easier than excellence with speed. Complexity, excellence and speed, or lack of it, are key challenges or frustrations.
Another challenging dimension, which often rests with leaders is risk versus caution. Embracing change, whether digital or otherwise, is always fraught with a degree of risk, and uncertainty. Companies can often have a great culture, yet don’t invest enough in their technology platforms or their people’s skillsets. To invest, you have got to take money out of somewhere. And that's a very hard decision with a degree of uncertainty. There is inherent risk and therefore people are more cautious when it comes to uncertain outcomes.
In the work we do with digital leaders, we've found that the number one driver is learning, followed by curiosity. What do you think makes a good digital leader?
You're spot on — learning and curiosity are crucial. These things are interconnected but almost one step ahead of curiosity is wonderment, of fascination, of an adventurous spirit — especially when it comes to digital technology. You’ll find many digital leaders are early adopters; it just lights you up and whether it's a shiny new toy or something really impactful, you get involved in it much earlier. That takes more than just curiosity.
A second point is about benefiting lives. Take education. You must ask how a piece of education technology enhances the life of a student — such as better access to professors or reduced costs. How does something in med tech impact the lives of patients and doctors. Easier access, faster response, high quality interaction, lower costs — there are so many benefits. When we talk about technology, being able to operate at that intersection of benefiting business and benefiting people’s lives is very exciting. As leaders, we have to ask that question — how does it benefit lives?
How would you define ‘digital’? Is it technology? Is it the application of technology to make consumers lives better?
It is certainly led by technology — better devices, better software, and better platforms. We have all moved from the big bulky computers to pretty much having a computer in our hands.
From a business standpoint, the application of tech is usually all to do with some degree of re-engineering or even re-invention of processes and operating models. Cloud storage or computing, analytical models, eCommerce and media platforms — there are countless examples of big shifts powered by technology. In the consumer business, it’s the everyday small actions, it’s the bits and bytes versus deep tech. And hence the application of technology is a critical element.
There is clearly convergence of many of these forces, and it is extremely dynamic. Thus, it also allows us to be much more expansive in our approach, more experimentative, or more innovative.
What about the role of boards? Are they pushing their CEOs hard enough on transformations?
Yes, I think boards are actively interested and engaging on transformation. It has changed a lot in recent years. There is no longer a debate. There is still, to some extent, a bias towards the known, and yet there are two things which are happening. One is that there are increasing numbers of digitally savvy people who are being placed on boards. The second is that even those who are not digitally savvy are asking more questions because they are experiencing digital in their own lives. And at least as I see it, digital is definitely now a good talking point for boards.
You have done a few different things before starting to work on digital. What have been the biggest surprises and learnings along that digital journey?
One key learning is how quickly the early phase of excitement can vanish — just as the Hype Cycle suggests. It has been startling for me how things get hyped and how quickly they disappear. And these are very clever, intelligent senior people getting drawn into the hype. To me that just doesn't make sense because it shouldn't be that way. We all should be able to make the distinction and read it better.
The second, which I wouldn't say necessarily caught me off guard, is the difference between China and the rest of the world. Digital in China is very different to digital in the West — their pace of innovation, entrepreneurial aggression and speed to market is just very, very different. There is speed and there is the speed of China when it comes to digital.
And lastly there’s a human aspect which is where leaders live two lives, one as the leaders or executives and the other as consumers. For example, when airline or hotel CEOs or their C-suite travels, it is someone else who books and organises their tickets, their stay. If the CEOs were to book their trips themselves, using their own credit card and experience the process personally, like their consumers do, I promise you many systems would improve. Some of them dramatically so. This is an interesting dichotomy.
Talking of leaders, you are proudly wearing your Liverpool Football Club home shirt in your Twitter profile picture. Can the traits of a successful football manager, like Jürgen Klopp, mirror the traits of a successful digital leader?
The thing about all great sporting leaders, including Jürgen Klopp, is that they are very authentic and can communicate very clearly. Both very important aspects of leadership. Another area which I find fascinating, certainly among the new generation of sporting leaders, is how they are open to data and science, yet still maintain the flair and x-factor they need on the field. Managing the Yin and Yang is key to leadership, especially in modern times. Klopp does it very well. He has the flair, the charm offensive and leverages experts for data and analysis.
In part, this is due to the ability to assemble a bunch of people who understand it. It’s about leaders giving others the space to flourish, building up a strong bench of specialists and experts. Leaders don’t need to do it all themselves, but can they orchestrate it, can they make people believe, can they lead from the front when required and lead from the centre when appropriate? Can they win the hearts and minds? Jürgen Klopp certainly can.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.