Mattel CTO counts on 4 principles to lead digital transformation

Leading a transformation starts with empathy, says Sven Gerjets
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Like many tech execs, I was hired to wear multiple hats. When I joined Mattel a year ago, I was tasked with moving the company into the future by shifting the technology organization into a more strategic function, modernizing our business systems, and figuring out how to utilize tech with toys in a more cost-effective and scalable way.

Read our related article, 4 factors to rethink when leading innovation. ]

Transforming an organization is never easy, but our keys to success were rooted in four principles: Practicing empathy, taking risks, making decisions, and championing incremental wins. Here’s how this worked for us.

1. Practice empathy

When your empathy is genuine, you begin to build trust.

 You need to have genuine empathy for the business partners you work with. This means caring as much about the way they measure success as you do about how you measure success. 

When your empathy is genuine, you begin to build trust – which, coming into a new role in an organization, was No. 1 on my list. If you don’t have an organization that is supportive and fully onboard with the transformation efforts, it’s impossible to succeed. You need to have leaders that know what “good” looks like and who are motivated to help the organization understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. 

This will become apparent when you hear things like, “Hey, we’re working with your team and it feels different,” or, “We can’t believe that IT delivered this project early and it met my business needs.” Small wins put the wind in the transformation efforts sails.

[ Trying to build your EQ? Read our related article, 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

2. Take risks

When you’re embarking on a transformation, you need to be a little crazy and take risks. Within three weeks of joining Mattel, I had to have an idea of what we needed to do to move the transformation forward. This meant spending time understanding the pain points of the business partners, the underlying issues with the technology, the risks that we were dealing with, and the culture of the organization.

Once you have that understanding, you need to make decisions that you think are directionally correct. Imperfect decisions early on are often better than perfect decisions that are too late. Momentum is required to steer a ship and action is the momentum transformational efforts require. 

3. Get the ball rolling

Often new leaders think they need to bring in consultants to do assessments and gap analysis.

Often new leaders think they need to bring in consultants to do assessments and gap analysis. I’ve never taken on a transformation role where assessments had not already been done many times over. The information about what to do is usually well at hand. What you need, though, is action: You need to emerge with a strategy and action plan that gets the momentum going to address the gaps in an environment.

Leaders are not always willing to make that bet or make a decision until they have all the data. By the time you do have all the data, it’s often too late to get people motivated and they will stop believing that change is in the air.

4. Champion small wins

 When you make a decision to move forward and begin transforming, you need to orchestrate wins. In other words, plan out short-term deliverables that enable you to iteratively start slicing things up, moving forward, learning, and pivoting. This isn’t about agile vs. waterfall, it is about learning how to work in a new way by succeeding one small step at a time.  This is how an organization learns to work differently. This will help your team’s mindset shift and will show your business partner that there is a different way to work with a technology team. 

Transformations are not easy, but these four tactics have helped me succeed. Empathy for the business helped us build trust, taking risks helped us to move forward, getting the ball rolling creates the momentum needed to change, and championing small wins helped us to learn to work differently.

[ 7 new rules of the road for IT leaders: Get our infographic and learn from CIOs succeeding with digital transformation. ]

Sven Gerjets is EVP and Chief Technology Officer at Mattel. Previously, Gerjets served as the President and Chief Product Officer at Colorado-based software company, where he supported the company’s business development efforts as well as product strategy for’s award-winning digital transformation platform (DxP).