Does Disruption Require Leaders To Become Digital Triatheles?

Astik Ranade, Partner at Heidrick and Struggles came on board with BW Businessworld to share his thoughts and views upon the dire need for leaders to adorn hats of Digital Triatheles.

Let’s have a look at how this concept is going to be a gamechanger for all leaders in times to come.

1. How important has self-assessment become for leaders today?

Consumer expectations are rapidly shifting with multiple generations, varying buying patterns and increasing requirement for an ecosystem of solutions. Compounding this, organizational and individual ways of working are increasingly evolving, with emerging technologies from AI, VR to 3D printing and blockchain blurring boundaries between physical and digital – are transforming how industries reshape sales and customer interactions. 

In the midst of this evolution, it becomes critical for any leader to go beyond technology, turbocharging their digital dexterity skills to stay abreast with the future. Digital prowess is essential for leaders to stay ahead of emerging trends and technologies, embed disruptive innovation building on their knowledge of an organization’s environment and nuances, with deep customer focus, all while executing an experimental approach balanced with a rapid pace of execution.

In this environment, reassessing leaders’ capability mix becomes critical for increased self-awareness while also identifying who can lead the charge for creating possibilities from new thinking and digital evolution. It is important that senior leadership skills are aligned to execute on the organizational vision of being digital-first, whilst also being cognizant of customer shifts. Only then, can the pace for digital acceleration and overall organizational growth be reset. The time is ripe for leaders to understand the need to develop Digital Dexterity skills.

This assessment would include taking stock of what we call digital “triathletes,” playing a unique three-part role of digital strategist, innovator, and driver – to raise digital awareness and shift the mindset of employees to bring about change in the organizational culture as well as identify obstacles to overcome.

It is also critical that senior leaders are proficient at communicating the organizational vision of being digital-first. We recently ran a digital dexterity program with the top 20 leaders from a retail firm. As part of the program, leaders participated in a digital pitch on how they would convey their vision of being digital first.  The resulting self-realization enabled with before and after pitches and our three-part digital dexterity model strengthened the top team’s collective intentions, identified impediments to success and set pace for communication of the overall organization’s digital initiative.

2. What can leaders do to become a Digital Triathlete – trio of a strategist, innovator, and driver? How does this lead to business transformation?

To answer this question we need to first understand who a Digital Triathlete is. As with any triathletes, a digital triathlete has a strong area of expertise which is advantageous, but it is equally critical to develop other areas to balance and drive sustainable performance. Disruptions require leaders who can develop proficiency across strategy, innovation, and implementation, underpinned with the agility to pivot on a dime. 

Here are four leadership digital dexterity skills required to carry the digital mantle deep into the organization:

Digital Strategist: The strategist’s role is to envision digital trends and market disruptions, introducing opportunities to surpass customer expectations while staying true to their organization’s purpose. 

In fact, as per our recent CEO Digital Acceleration survey, 73% of CEOs indicated they have a clearly defined digital vision; however, only 38% regularly communicate their digital vision. Strategic sponsorship also requires bringing together senior leaders to create a path for a future-focused ‘digital ambition’ while proactively leveraging assets to mobilize digital initiatives across the company, aligning priorities from the top to remove barriers to execute on digital initiatives while creating space for innovation.

Digital Innovator: The Digital Innovator encourages experimentation and is at the inflection point of incubating digital change. It takes an Innovator to cultivate the cultural conditions to breathe new life into legacy mindsets. They not only bring in new ideas but are also adept at exploring innovation in business adjacencies, repurposing infrastructure and utilizing data to address immediate gaps as well as bring about an ecosystem-wide view for product evolution and problem-solving.

With 38% of CEOs indicating organizations flexibly assign resources to deliver on digital initiatives, the Innovator is key to connecting the dots by bringing together cross-functional teams to role-model new behaviors and harness data to address gaps. Incremental steps in innovation are critical and require the Innovator to also consider alternative organizational model or external ventures to ‘test soon, fail fast’ to judiciously increase speed of experimentation and accelerate digital initiatives. 

Digital Driver: The Digital Driver disrupts the status quo to enact change and transform the business. Their prowess lies in creating the pathways to adapt and optimize core processes in rolling out new digital initiatives. They streamline resources and enable rapid

execution of innovation initiatives. They carry the heavy burden of enabling implementation where almost 60% of CEOs observed that organizations do not have diversity in digital talents. This raises a red flag and will require the Driver to quickly assess digital capability gaps and execute a mix of buy and build digital talent strategy. 

The Driver is also responsible for establishing appropriate governance at each stage of the lifecycle including embedding performance expectations. The human factor of trust needs to be high in such a scenario as they collaborate across the organization for rapid execution.

Agility: Underpinning the Digital Strategist-Innovator-Driver paradigm is the leader’s ability to foresee, adapt to market changes and lean into continuous learning. Our survey indicated 50% of CEOs take risks to create innovative digital initiatives. Digital Triathletes are posed to reshape the company culture while ensuring that an entrepreneurial mindset and openness to reinvent themselves is built in as core organizational values. One of the most common challenges we hear from leaders trying to drive digital transformation in recent months is that their organizational culture and mind-sets are still stuck in the status quo while quick wins are difficult to sustain.

When organizations look for digital solutions today, we assume that digitalization is exclusive to the young which hinders an organization’s digital transformation process. While the young bring a digital-first focus, exposure to and breadth of understanding of the organization as well as industry bring sensitivities that would help evolve customer-focused and journey-based solutions. Embedding foresight, adaptability, learning and resilience between those with experience and those with exposure can make for an effective digital transition.

3. Do you think we will see the role of digital intrapreneurs coming up prominently across organizations?

Intrapreneurship as a concept has always been part of leaders’ growth trajectory in the early years. Digitalization has opened the way for new intra-entrepreneurial opportunities, while we see growing attention to the role of digital and innovation bringing up change in how organizations approach problem-solving and customer-focused solutions. 

Exponential innovations such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), 3D printing, robotics, and blockchain are generating greater avenues almost every day as their reach and depth are increasingly becoming accessible and impactful. Digital intrapreneurs can use digital means as a critical component while leveraging the use of technology towards an organization’s innovation initiatives whether that’s a new digital product, optimizing end-to-end processes, response time to market or service enhancements, etc. 

As part of the digital dexterity program mentioned earlier, one of the projects executed included leveraging data assets and liabilities to optimize delivery of products to a customer from multiple locations. The digital intrapreneurs in the team not only optimized the delivery process leveraging data insights but also collaborated with an external supplier to build in a cutting-edge fit-to-purpose packaging solution. The results were increased time-to-value, decreased shipping cost, enhanced packaging look and feel, and positive customer feedback. 

As we see more businesses leveraging the potential of technology going forward, the need for a digital intrapreneur to create strategies for business growth and innovation will grow. What we also need is to build and cultivate a culture in which intrapreneurs can flourish in an organization that is at the heart of the exponential digital innovation environment.

4. Have businesses truly transformed digitally over the last year, or was it only a quick fix to the current scenario? Has there been a shift in the mindset?

Referring to our survey, we found that a year into the pandemic where organizations have leveraged technology to optimize and digitize, only 39% of CEOs indicated overall progress of digital transformation exceeding expectations. Building on this momentum, they are forecasting a shift to 73% to exceed expectations within the next 12 months. The investments made in technology have resulted in terrific advantages while sustaining and ensuring the continuous adaptation in response to changing customer needs is to be seen.

Having adapted to remote working, organizations’ culture has changed dramatically, and it can only be inculcated down the line, from leadership to employees. Many businesses with heavy reliance on one application realized that to improve internal and external communications and streamline operations, they required multiple solutions. The pandemic has encouraged a remote working culture to extend even as we enter the post-pandemic new ways of working. The distrust and qualms employers may have had around productivity and ownership, have now been defeated.

5. We are entering a hybrid world where physical and digital worlds are colliding. What challenges do you foresee facing businesses?

The hybrid world will be a boon for businesses. From business opportunities gained in a connected world, to flexible policies, talent, better business output, etc., the hybrid model is already accepted by many. However, with every model comes challenges – to business and people where organizations need to account customer preferences and a balance of extremes – the colliding world of digital and physical. 

We see dramatic changes in sales capabilities across industries. Digital has allowed remote, faster and 24/7 connect with customers, even engagement with doctors and technical practitioners. A sales representative who could visit 4-5 doctors in a day can now expand their geographic horizon as well as use apps to amplify success with insightful data, product depth and training for application and usage. However, as doctors return to face-to-face interactions, consumers start visiting malls to touch and feel clothes, and companies look to expand to new customer base, sales reps will require a new set of hybrid sales capabilities to build deeper customer connections and deliver a ‘unique’ value proposition to outperform competitions. 

Security will always be a priority for businesses since we will continue to spend a large part of our lives in the virtual world. While businesses are at the top of their game to secure sensitive data, cybercriminals get smarter every day and that is where a digital triathlete can make a difference.

Working from home has led to fatigue and burnout, which leads to diminished productivity. Toggling between working in the office and working from home hampers the ability to focus and to maintain a productive work culture. A demotivated employee affects customer experience and satisfaction which impacts business ROI. Furthermore, as employees continue to work in isolation, the relationship with colleagues may be weakened over time. The need for human interaction or real-time communication is important for constant flow of ideas and innovation.

A sustainable, collaborative, and productive work culture must be established and should flow down the hierarchy, from leadership to the workforce. A hybrid workspace might just be an inevitable model for many businesses, so leaders need to build strategies that fit the post-pandemic normal. 

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