Digital transformation: 5 truths of successful leadership

Great change requires great leadership. Use these principles to set the stage for your organization's digital transformation, rally support, boost morale, and overcome setbacks
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Most CIOs today think they have a playbook for digital transformation. Many companies will embrace today’s “technologies du jour” armed with the best of intentions. Why, then, do so many digital transformation initiatives fail? The problem isn’t cloud, IoT, RPA, or any other technology; so many digital transformations fail today because of a lack of leadership. 

The dynamics of a digital transformation are similar to any big change management program or change management philosophy. They require bold, determined, and consistent leadership in order to achieve success.

The following five tenets of leading digital transformation are, by no means, the only principles CIOs should follow. However, these will help you set the stage for your organization’s digital transformation, rally support, boost morale, and overcome setbacks as you work through your program and toward success.

1. Start with the digital transformation's "why?"

Digital transformation shouldn’t start with only technology; digital transformation should begin with a problem statement, a clear opportunity, or an aspirational goal. 

The “why” of your organization’s digital transformation might be around improving customer experience, reducing friction, increasing productivity, or elevating profitability, for example. Or, if it’s an aspirational statement, it might revolve around becoming the absolute best to do business with, utilizing enabling digital technologies that were unavailable years ago.

[ Is your team tiring of transformation work? Read also: How to beat digital transformation fatigue. ] 

In order for your organization to rally around digital transformation, it needs to be real. If people have never seen a hammer before, you can’t show them a hammer and expect them to marvel at it. You’ve given them no context. What you can do, however, is connect that hammer to more meaningful impact – such as attracting and retaining more customers, improving customer satisfaction from 85 percent to 95 percent, or reducing churn from 15 percent to 3 percent.

Disclaimer: Please don’t use a hammer on your customers or employees. : )

Leveraging digital technologies and infusing them into your business won’t, by themselves, win over your frontline employees. Your “why” – when paired *with* these enabling technologies – will help create a sense of urgency around change.

2. Rally support

Digital transformation isn’t something that any CIO can do on their own, no matter how influential you are in your organization. You can be the best quarterback in the NFL but if you don’t have a good offensive line, defense, and good receivers, you’re not going to win. CIOs need the support of evangelists and change agents. 

Support at the top is clearly critical to your success. However, you must have advocates at multiple levels throughout the organization who are willing to be early adopters and who have bought into your vision. They understand the “why” and what you’re trying to accomplish. They’re willing to own it, be great communicators, be willing to lead by example, and provide transparent bidirectional feedback throughout your digital transformation and your change program.

People want to be part of something big; you just have to find them and rally them.

At the American Cancer Society, we named these folks “change champions.” They took great pride in what they represented, and we reinforced that by making their roles critical to our success and recognizing their efforts in meaningful ways, including company-wide recognition.  People *want* to be part of something big; you just have to find them and rally them.

There is very little in the enterprise that is more powerful to driving successful change than a passionate front-line staff that has been empowered to serve the customer and each other. 

3. Communicate quick wins

Now that you have “why” and your change champions, you’re out of the gate. Next, you want to start racking up early and quick wins as soon as possible. You’ll also want to communicate these successes in a repeatable and meaningful way. The reason for this is two-fold.

First, this proves the business benefit of what you’re doing. It helps convert those who might be on the fence, and it shows your ultimate stakeholder they’ve made the right decision by putting you in charge of the program. Second, communicating these quick wins company-wide is also what builds momentum and boosts morale.

You want everyone to know that you’re moving in the right direction and that this is working. 

It’s easy to get mired in the day-to-day of a cultural transformation, especially when paired with your operational responsibilities. Don’t let this happen. Hold yourself accountable by wrapping some rigor around how, when, and to whom you communicate those early and quick wins. Create a plan for tracking them and quantifying them. You want everyone to know that you’re moving in the right direction and that this is working. 

4. Expect setbacks

The harsh reality is that you will get sacked as quarterback. You’ll get hurt in the gym while working on your fitness regimen. A technology launch fails. Your sponsor leaves. You lose key resources. These losses will happen because change is hard. Digital transformation efforts are difficult and changing a culture always takes longer than you think it will and is always more work than you thought it would be. When you’re in that valley of despair or trough of disillusionment, remember you have a lot fueling you.

IT leaders *love* to share the good, the bad, and the ugly.

You’ve already built up a bank of goodwill with your early and quick wins. Continue focusing on that hill you’re trying to climb and acknowledge that this is where leaders are made. This is where you keep forging ahead. You hold your team together and focus on the big picture.

I’ve found it very helpful, in these tough times, to talk to a mentor or a colleague to share “war stories” and bounce ideas. IT leaders *love* to share the good, the bad, and the ugly. Take advantage of that and realize that you’re not the first to experience these challenges and you won’t be the last. However, you can be one of the rare leaders who leads their team through the types of setbacks that often doom lesser leaders and their transformation goals.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

5. Adapt and be consistent 

No one hits the gym once and expects to be in great shape the next day. If you’re consistent in your fitness routine, though, you’ll eventually get there. The same is true with any digital transformation program. You need to be consistent through the highs and lows and constantly adapt. In the gym, you might plateau after doing the same workout routine for too long, and you’ll be required to change it up to “shock” your muscles into continuing development. In the enterprise, you might be faced with new trends or new information. You’ll discover things you didn’t know about in the beginning. Leadership might change. 

Great leaders have the ability to pivot quickly. These “shocks” to your enterprise “muscles” will always happen with the pace of change in our world. If you embrace and adapt, you’ll come out stronger. However, you will need a short-term memory and an unwavering eye on your long-term vision. Failures don’t define you; your consistency, commitment, flexibility, and adaptability define you.

Digital transformation isn’t easy. It’s a long, winding path that begins with “why” it’s important to the organization in the first place. This is the flag at the top of the mountain you’re climbing. It’s what you think about as you rally support and achieve and communicate quick wins. It’s in the back of your mind when you encounter roadblocks and setbacks. It’s what’s on the horizon as you forge forward, and it’s where you’ll arrive as you lead from the front. 

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Jay Ferro
Jay Ferro is currently EVP, Chief Information, Technology, and Product Officer for Clario, a global data and technology company that minimizes risk and uncertainty in clinical trials, so that organizations can move ahead quickly – and with confidence.