The journey to digital, from the way you’ve always worked, to the way everyone else is beginning to work, can be viscerally shocking. The digital path leads senior executives through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, to acceptance.
In 2016 an Amrop report: Digitization on Boards, found an absence of digital literacy and digitally innovative thinking in the 110 largest stock listed companies in Europe and North America. Only four had an official technology/digital committee, and just 5% of Board Members in non-technology companies had digital competencies. Even digital-critical sectors were under-equipped. The third edition of our report, published in 2019, reveals that the digital picture is still out of focus and multiple questions still surround its purpose and implementation.
Digitization Can be a Frustrating Race
Start-ups such as Paypal and Uber shape their business in the context of present day technology and are often defined by it. By contrast, working for a legacy company can resemble a race in which the finish line remains elusive, with great ideas coming moments before hearing about a start up that launched the same concept yesterday.
Help is at Hand
Hyper Island is a digital media school working with corporations seeking to adapt their business in a digitized world. Rather than schooling them in fast-obsolete technology, Hyper Island designs learning journeys: executives observe their environments, watch behavioural patterns and new technologies and use everything available to solve their challenges. Attitudes can shift in a three-day masterclass, according to co-founder Mikael Ahlstrom: “The first day there’s a sense of urgency, the second day there is excitement about innovation, and the third day is: how do I implement this and what’s the next step?”
Deliberate Shifts – and a Sense of Urgency
For Ahlstrom, transformation is rarely one project, it’s a designed, facilitated journey with multiple components: handling shifts in attitude, identifying a new vision, introducing new cultural values, practicing with hands-on projects. The process “requires planning and strategy to slowly move the company into a new position." Turnaround is usually helped along by a sense of urgency. The level of crisis can be an asset to help an organization adapt quickly.
The Travel Industry Brings Cautionary Tales
More than one airline has lost control of the interface with its clients who have abandoned travel agents, catalogues and advice-seeking. The products of many travel players in general have become an inventory item in third party systems, or last-minute competitive lists such as Skyscanner. Yet some, such as Tui, have surfed the wave. In 2014 Tui adjusted its positioning as ‘best travel company online’ to ‘best online company within travel’ redefining its business and revenue models in a major mind-shift.
Transforming the Transformers
Amrop, as a global player in a transforming executive search industry, is on its own journey, running Hyper Island workshops as part of its regional and global conference and educational agenda. Its search professionals – including Researchers - unpack Amrop’s value chain, moving from ‘ideation’ to ‘implementation’ – crystallizing ideas into the select few believed to have the most traction and deserving serious attention and processing.
Peering Through the Talent Fog
Many leaders are still in the transition from wild innovation-dreaming to concretization and their organizations lack a longer term staffing plan. A polarizing effect on hiring is emerging, with hyperactive overdrive at one end of the spectrum, and analysis paralysis at the other. Roles, furthermore, are in constant flux, and this demands agile talent and leaders willing to self-challenge and get to grips with gaps, rather than papering them over.
Dynamism Ain’t What it Used to Be
For Mikael Ahlstrom, the meaning of dynamism has been ”exploding” and the notion of one profile lasting a career is over. If C-suite executives such as CMO’s once worked with the things they studied, today’s longstanding CMO has witnessed the arrival of the internet, social media, SEO, and algorithm driven marketing.
But Some Fundamental Principles Remain
In 2007 the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing proposed to modify its 30 year old definition of the discipline. The revised version swapped ‘brevity for verbosity’ according to the UK’s Campaign Magazine, adding little to the 1976 formulation. Revolution and evolution need balancing, therefore, and leaders should be open to twists in the disruption plot. According to Costa Tzavaras, Director of Global Programs at Amrop: “Disruptors have often tried to displace executive search firms, only to end up providing services to them. New tech companies may well end up becoming enablers of the agents they originally tried to displace.”
The world view of the CEOs of ten years hence will be in sharp contrast to those of today who have typically only been working with digital technology for the latter part of their careers. Interactions with executive search firms will change accordingly, with gaming tools and customized profile algorithms set to feature in searches in the not-too-distant future. Yet the human touch will remain critical to executive search. Thinking and acting ‘glocal’ and regional subtlety on the ground cannot and should not be replaced by standardized formula or automated assumptions about the source of the best candidates.
Don’t Think Systems, Think Systemic
Faced with internal resistance and friction, an IT professional hired to ‘develop apps and put in new systems’ will quickly defect, Leyún warns. To retain digital talent, change starts top down. And ad hoc, transactional relationships with executive search firms are being replaced by transformative ones, based in trusted advisorship.
Could the answer to digital disruption lie in connectivity, humility and courage? When leaders connect with themselves, honestly assess their personal strengths and limits, their business model and value chain, when they connect leadership teams with new voices and external trusted advisors and selectively collaborate with digital innovators, the road from disruption to daylight may not look so daunting.
From Disruption to Daylight – 10 ways to surf the curve
- Fasten your seatbelt and get a co-pilot: Prepare for a range of emotions, from resistance, through panic, to curiosity. A facilitated masterclass with a disruption consultant can make the journey exhilerating rather than terrifying
- Link the thinking: Transformation is rarely a one-project affair, it’s a designed, facilitated journey, requiring planning and strategy to slowly move the company into a new position
- Use crisis as a catalyst: A sense of urgency can power a turnaround. Crisis-free industries can have a tougher time mobilizing
- Take the bull by the horns: Failing to react quickly enough allows agile players to take over the interface with your customers
- Remember - Digital is not a department: A mental shift is called for. Don’t think systems, think systemic
- Mix it up: Involve bright young minds as well as seniors in workshops, test projects and campaigns
- Curiosity beats knowledge: One profile no longer lasts a lifetime. The best talents are highly adaptive, constantly challenging their own processes and knowledge
- Be discerning: It’s critical to identify enduring business principles and segments of your value chain and value proposition. Then balance evolution with revolution
- Know your limits, collaborate and test: For innovation, be prepared to strike up selective collaborations with specialized start ups, to test, fail and test again
- Move from transaction to transformation: When hiring for digitization, expect a strong executive search partner to address your business context, rather than grafting on a token technical expert.
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