Digital transformation: 4 signs of a superstar

You may read the list and think, "wow, haven't met too many of those folks" – and you'd be right. But you can learn from their digital transformation style.
328 readers like this.
signs of a great digital transformation leader

A terrific digital transformation leader showed me his LinkedIn profile the other day.  It was super low-key – so low-key, in fact, that you’d never guess this guy has done some really groundbreaking stuff.  

The sharp contrast between impressive individual and fairly generic online presence got me thinking … in a world of smoke and mirrors, how do we know what a digital transformation superstar really looks like? As the famous cartoon says, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”… how do we tell what real talent looks like in an extremely online and lately very virtual world? 

How to spot an exceptional digital transformation leader

I’ve compiled some thoughts from observing great digital transformation leaders “in the wild.” Here’s what I’ve noticed as the hallmarks of actual digital transformation superstars:

1. They are importers and exporters of talent

Digital transformation superstars often bring critical talent into their orbit – they hire with an astute eye, but also adeptly spot talent “hidden in plain sight” in adjacent parts of the organization. But bringing the right talent in is only half the equation. What makes these folks superstars is their willingness to export talent, imparting digital capability to parts of the organization far beyond their purview. 

It takes a confident, unselfish leader to serially give away the people that make them look good – but if digital is really going to permeate into an organization’s DNA, digital talent can’t sit in the same pockets forever. 

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

2. They practice extreme humility and manage expectations with care

The alleged superstars of digital transformation you often see in the press and on social media are pretty noisy – they make extravagant claims and spend an inordinate amount of time burnishing their image, fluttering from keynote to keynote. Think of these folks as glorified Instagram influencers – it’s all for the camera’s eye, so to speak. 

The real superstars of digital transformation are far more humble and quite modest in their claims. They spend time behind the scenes hard at work to make things actually happen. They don’t cycle organizations through elaborate gyrations of elevated hope and anguished failure, rather choosing to patiently test and learn. In the end, these superstars build exponential results through learning and persistence. 

3. They eschew jargon and speak plainly

When I lead development workshops for leaders going on the digital journey, I often deploy an exercise where the leaders have to practice holding their own in conversations against a couple of different figures – one of whom is “The Jargonator,” a fearsome creature who issues a “word salad” of incomprehensible jargon. The exercise is meant to be an exaggeration, but over and over leaders tell me that it rings disturbingly true. 

We all grapple with “Jargonators” – but again, they’re not the ones getting things done. True digital transformation superstars bridge between business and technical audiences by speaking plain English (or Chinese, Swahili, or whatever the workplace’s language is) to all.  Their understanding is deep enough that they can translate the most sophisticated concepts into terms a first-grader can understand – and certainly ones a co-worker from any background can grasp.

4. They seek connection between ideas and technologies, rather than creating division and emphasizing distinctions

The most impressive digital transformation superstars are integrative thinkers – bringing together disparate concepts to create solutions far better than just the sum of their parts. They’re curious and hungry for outside input, and want to build bridges from present state to future state, rather than simply “breaking things” for the sake of the noise it creates. 

These superstars also view the world as a set of spectrums, rather than siloes. You won’t hear them say things like, “That’s not data science, that’s artificial intelligence!” because they understand the subtleties of the connections between activities and disciplines … and because they are too invested in bringing others on the journey to create lots of artificial “stopping points.”

You may read the above list and think, wow, haven’t met too many of those folks – and you’d be right. When we analyze populations to discover individuals with both the skills and the behaviors to advance the digital journey, the group with both aspects covered is generally a low-single-digit percentage of the population.  (Consistent with emerging research that suggests that across challenges, disproportionate business outcomes are produced by a very small part of the working population).

But that’s not a reason to give up hope. Not everyone may be a high-flying digital transformation superstar, but by being conscious of the four areas where superstars excel, maybe we can all get just a little bit closer to being digital transformation superstars ourselves.

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

Melissa Swift is the U.S. Transformation Leader at Mercer, the consultancy helping redefine the world of work. In this role, Melissa is responsible for the firm’s efforts in the areas of workforce transformation, HR transformation, HR digitization, diversity equity and inclusion, and workforce analytics.