Stop assuming your C-suite understands digital transformation

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Going digital and successfully utilizing cloud-based software solutions can be quite a journey – one that requires talented leadership. Even among digitally savvy companies, the talents to navigate new technology can be rare. John Ryan, CMO of Crossfuze, shared his insights into helping your company’s C-suite team make a successful transition. This is what he had to say:

It’s assumed that every C-suite is filled with executives who possess the capacity to lead digital transformations because companies across all industries are increasingly aware that “next-generation” technologies are critical in maintaining a competitive advantage. Most C-suite executives have accomplished what they have because they understand the necessity of innovation.

Unfortunately, this assumption is not in line with reality. Studies consistently show that less than one in 10 leaders truly has a transformational mindset. A 2015 study by the consulting firm Harthill found that just 8% of executives possess the characteristics of transformational leaders. The reality is that most C-suite executives aren’t open to the kind of risk-taking and bold thinking that are necessary to plan and achieve a digital transformation. There could many reasons why: fear of jeopardizing a hard-won career, favoring the status quo to the disruption of major change, and preferring to play by the rules instead of making their own.

At the executive level, the compulsion to “play it safe,” is understandable, but can create systematic delays, setbacks, and failures for many mission-critical digital transformation initiatives. A recent study by Wipro Digital found that half of all companies are failing to execute on their digital transformation strategies, with only four percent realizing the first half of their digital investment in the first year. Furthermore, the study found that 25 percent cannot reach agreement about what digital transformation means in practical terms. Collectively, these failures add up to a significant loss of time, profits, and competitive positioning. Yet rarely is the C-suite’s underlying competency called into question when leading digital transformations.

In order to become aware of the limitations of your C-suite, it’s imperative to understand the characteristic skill sets that are unique to transformational leaders. Being able to identify the qualities that set apart “the 8%,” can lead to more effectively managing expectations and staging interventions that will bolster the changes of success for digital transformation initiatives. John Ryan outlined six key characteristics of C-suite executives that exemplify the essence of transformational leadership:


1. Capacity to think long-term, beyond a single fiscal quarter: A digital transformation cannot be achieved in 90 days, no matter how smart or hard you work. Careful planning and refinement over multiple years is required because a digital transformation is an ongoing, iterative process. More than 60 percent of organizations report that their digital transformation initiatives took them at least two years. The process involves a cultural mindset shift and long-term commitment by everyone in the organization, which are changes that can’t happen in a single fiscal quarter.

2. Ability to align technology initiatives with strategic business priorities: Any effective leader can delegate tasks and implement solutions from outside experts, but it takes a truly talented leader to masterfully align a technology initiative to strategic business priorities. This alignment is critical for the success of any enterprise project, yet too many leaders embark on digital transformation initiatives in a vacuum, unable to articulate how the initiative will support the rest of the organization and get the company closer to achieving its long-term business goals.

3. Talent for developing a vision tailored to corporate values: It’s important that the vision of digital transformation isn’t based on an out-of-the-box template, but rather is tailored to integrate seamlessly into the value system of the organization. Digital transformations are rooted in corporate culture, with the success of transformation initiatives largely dependent on the ability of the culture to evolve over time and the ability of a visionary leader to help redefine what the culture should look like.

4. Eagerness to take risks and make big investments: Many leaders can get caught up in a cycle of endless deliberations and debates before feeling confident enough to move forward. In reality, it’s faster and easier to test ideas through trial-and-error and to recognize that failures are the most expedient way to learn and grow. When it comes to making big investments in technology, the most digitally mature companies aren’t shy about committing to spending a lot of money. In fact, they’re twice as likely to invest in innovation as the least digitally mature companies, and they’re always thinking beyond the level of the products and services they offer today.

5. Focus on earning universal employee buy-in: Getting every team member on board is a critical component of a successful digital transformation. Unfortunately, the effects of digital transformation can be unevenly felt: Operations and IT generally experience the most benefits, while development, marketing, and sales tend to experience mixed benefits. Because of this it can be difficult to get every employee excited and supportive of the transformation initiative, even though their support is essential to success. The skills to do so are often beyond a typical C-suite executive’s. Nearly one in five senior executives secretly believes that digital transformation projects are a waste of time, which is unfortunate because this mindset could be setting up their organization for failure.

6. Inclusion of data to drive decision-making: Successful leaders rely on data-informed insights to help drive decision-making, especially for their digital transformation initiatives. The technology revolution is driven by the ability to collect vast quantities of data to improve business outcomes. If data can provide these types of outcomes, then every C-suite executive should use data to help guide their own technology transformations.

Every senior-level executive believes that they are fully capable of successfully leading digital transformation initiatives. The reality is that most C-suite executives don’t understand and aren’t capable of leading successful digital transformations and far too many organizations languish and fail along the way. The defining characteristics of a truly transformational leader are an ability to think long-term and outline the right steps to achieve short-term milestones, align technology initiatives to strategic business priorities, define and properly communicate a vision tailored to company growth goals, take risks and make big investments, achieve universal employee buy-in, and use data to drive decision-making.

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