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Six ways to convince executive leaders on the need to digitally transform

According to our recent Digital, Marketing & eComm in Focus study, more than 7 in 10 brands in Australia are undertaking some form of digital transformation. Surprising? Not really! But what was unexpected is that nearly 50% are less than 18 months into their transformation, despite all of the COVID digital acceleration that occurred, many brands have only begun leaning into the challenge of transformation.


graph showing organisation's digital transformation journey

Digital transformation or transforming businesses for the digital era is not for the faint hearted. The larger the organisation the harder the journey often is, and to be successful the entire organisation needs to get around it if the change is to stick.


In a recent client workshop, I was once again reminded of just how hard it can be to drive the change within organisations – particularly if the executive is not fully bought into transforming and understand the importance of change.


At its core, the client’s issue is that the executive group and the board just don’t understand digital and don’t want to accept the need to change. Now the interesting thing about this client is they are in an industry that is serving some of the most digitally savvy consumers on the planet and are now ultimately competing in a global marketplace with loads of disruption occurring. The catalyst is there for change, but the appetite isn’t.


A study from 2021 published in Sloan Management all but confirmed the challenge facing brands. According to the study of about 2,000 companies, only 7% were led by digitally competent teams; that is, a team where over half of the members are digitally savvy, with a firm understanding of how emerging tech will shape their company’s success. Unsurprisingly, those companies outperformed the rest by 48% in terms of revenue growth and market valuation. Fewer than 25% of CEOs and about 12.5% of CFOs in the sample could be regarded as digitally proficient. Even among those leading the technology function, just 47% of CTOs and 45% of CIOs made the cut; the rest focus on IT infrastructure and back-office operations more than capturing value from digital technologies.


So, what are leaders or professionals to do if the executive team or board just doesn’t get it?


1. Bring the outside in


One of the reasons executive leaders don’t understand how much the world is changing within their industry is that they are operating on the basis of assumptions about what the future holds, which are shaped by past performance and what has worked historically. Whilst leaders may attempt to demonstrate through numbers and regular engagement that the market has shifted, sometimes it is not enough to get executives to shift their gaze and lean into digital.


To shift these stubborn beliefs and biases, we need to get more than a little creative. Bringing in an external expert to share trends, knowledge and practice examples of how their industry and customer is changing can be helpful – and can gain more cut through than those in the business who have been pushing the agenda. Better still - get the executive out of the office and close up and personal with what others are doing. If you are in retail, go on a retail tour and see what the best of the best brands are doing in digital, if you are in the leisure and entertainment space, walk throughs of competitor experiences are valuable, and the list goes on. The closer you can get your executives to the change they are occurring, the more likely they are going to be able to visualise what is possible and how it can add value and the less likely you are going to have to sell the sizzle of the opportunity.


2. Balancing change with continuity


One of the unintended consequences of driving a digital transformation agenda, is the old and the new can be pitted against one another. Whilst the need to transform is imperative for most organisations in most industries, what has made the organisation successful over previous decades wasn’t transforming for the digital era. Trying to drive an agenda through the organisation that feels at odds with the organisations heritage can create friction and result in executives discounting the value of thought around the future direction of the organisation in the digital age.


Having an appreciation for what has made the organisation successful and drawing on its heritage to help chart a future path is important to demonstrate to leadership that you understand more than just digital.


3. Playing into self-interest


Whilst driving executive and board buy in requires us to connect what we do to the overarching organisational strategy, sometimes we have to get a little more personal. There are usually key executives that we need to convince and understanding what personally motivates them and connecting the future direction to their individual motivations can be as powerful as aligning to the organisations strategy and demonstrating value to the bottom line.


4. Play the long game


When it comes to digital transformation, we need to be prepared that driving a shift in understanding and appetite is not something that is achieved in one meeting. It can be something that takes time and it is a journey that needs an intentional approach to drive and embed knowledge and understanding with the executive. Too often leaders are attempting to drive the understanding whilst requesting funding, whereas in reality we have to get people buying into the vision and direction and agreeing that is right for the organisation before we simply ask for funding. Engaging with executives 1 on 1 to listen to their perspectives, understand their points of view and better grasp what they don’t understand about the digital space can help you to better formulate an engagement strategy that is more likely to cut through.


5. Bring the customers voice into the room and conversation


The customer is always right. Right? When insights, feedback and interactions demonstrate and reinforce why we need to change and what customers care about this can sometimes be the answer to unlocking digital transformation engagement and endorsement. To do so leaders need to think cleverly about how customer feedback will cut through as overtime complaints and feedback can be dehumanised as data is aggregated up to tell a story about the biggest issues. Putting the executive into the customers shoes and enabling them to see the experience and the challenges first hand can be powerful as can hearing directly from customers face to face.


6. Angling for broader change


Rising tides lift the boats as the saying goes and that is true of digital transformation. As we have seen earlier, the Sloan Management study demonstrated that too few companies are led by digitally literate and savvy leaders which impacts the ability to drive change through digital transformation. It is not uncommon to see one leader on the executive shouldering the need for championing the digital agenda and in the digital age that no longer suffices. Marketing and digital leaders, particularly those residing on the executive, need to challenge the skill sets residing at the executive table and call for renewal in order to ensure greater digital leadership to steward the organisations future success in a changing market environment.



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