The future of digital: enabling the CEO for growth

The digital economy is advancing and transforming rapidly across every market segment and organisation. Faced with such a relentless pace of digital innovation, boards face the challenge of staying agile to ensure their organisations thrive in an ever-evolving landscape.

A CEO, and their board, need to pursue strategies that ensure their business maintains that essential forward momentum.

Jean-Pierre Green, Head of Digital & Technology at Eton Bridge Partners, hosted a webinar that featured a panel of experts who discussed the ways in which businesses can and should embrace digital acceleration.

Our expert panel comprised:

The capabilities that a CEO needs around a board table to enable growth in an organisation

Given that CEOs need to manouevre rapidly to keep up with the pace of digital disruption, how do you best equip boards to manage the market shift to digital? The panel was unanimous in believing that it is essential that all members of a board are interested in the digital aspect of a company’s strategy.

There should be, as Heath put it, “clarity, openness and diversity of thought”, as well as a clear understanding of the transformation upon which an organisation has embarked. Access to trusted, independent technical advice is also desirable and, he added: “The board needs to have an inquiring mind and be interested in the subject – that’s absolutely key.”

Sarah agreed, saying that too many boards appoint a tech expert and then sigh with relief because that box has been ticked. She added: “On the boards where I am the ‘technology representative’, I see my role as being to empower the rest of the board, to make them feel confident about making great decisions about technology.”

Gregory shared the example of the New York Times, a traditional company that achieved a successful digital transformation. It progressed smoothly and successfully, he said, because: “It really understood that to reorganise for significant change, it needed new, adaptable and flexible leaders. It brought in from outside, or promoted from within, people who were more open-minded and, as a result, adaptability and flexibility became increasingly important.”

As a result, boards should not feel that technology is the responsibility solely of the CTO or CIO. After all, it is accepted that all board members need to have a solid understanding of finance; why should the same not be true of digital transformation?

The CEO can play a role in this process by showing trust and faith in the people around them, who will in turn ensure clarity of accountability, objectives and strategy.

Organisations also benefit from showing a willingness to learn from leaders in their fields. Gregory talked about Axel Springer, another traditional media company, whose CEO understood that Silicon Valley was a world leader in the development of high-performing digital-led organisations. As a result, he sent three of his top managers to the area for nine months – and they were able to instill a digital culture on their return.

Ultimately, the focus needs to be on the strategic objectives of an organisation rather than the technology that may be key to delivering them. Sarah related that when one of her organisations began a major transformation, her team deliberately repeated the message: “This is not an IT project; this is how we are going to deliver our strategic goals.”

Cultural change is the cornerstone of any successful transformation, how does that manifest itself?

We have seen very recently how cultural change can happen quickly when businesses transformed to carrying out business over Zoom during the Covid-19 pandemic. Heath led the technology stream for one of the Nightingale hospitals and said that the understanding of a common goal by every person in the team was key.

All agreed that it is essential for boards to recognise how the world changed during the pandemic, and to have the agility to build the elements that worked into their new reality. However, it can be challenging to prevent organisations from “snapping back” to old ways of thinking.

Sarah reported that at one organisation, the tech team – who had gone from being second-class citizens to heroes during the pandemic – had the foresight to say to the board: “Don’t let this change. You’ve seen what we can do, trust us.” Sadly, she added: “Before long, the board snapped back to their old way of thinking, which is a shame. Recognising what the new world brings, and having a board that has the agility to take what worked during the pandemic and build it into that new world, is key to success.”

Clarity of leadership and engagement right through a business, led by the board, is key to a successful culture change. Even if you have the best technology in the world, without an accompanying culture change it will not have the desired impact. As Sarah phrased it:

“People bring about change, not technology.”

Sarah illustrated how fantastic communication and engagement can support successful change by relaying a story of a board member at The National Trust visiting a remote lighthouse located in the North-East. In conversation with the lighthouse keeper, when asked out of curiosity what their job entailed, the individual answered, “digital transformation”, and referenced the impact it would have on the visitor experience as well as how he was contributing to his role. A brilliant example of how every employee can be brought along on the digital transformation journey if the communication and engagement internally have been given the same level of emphasis and importance as the external customer communication. It is important to treat and think of every one of your employees as you would your customers in that context.

That same board also showed real agility and intellectual curiosity, instead of keeping its focus purely on people who were their customers, identifying people who fitted their customer profile but were not currently their customers. Proving that a willingness to identify the questions that you had not thought to ask, can lead to a culture change that embraces a whole new way of thinking.

Engagement, especially through excellent communications with your team, is key. The communications workstream should never be an afterthought; every member of an organisation needs to understand the journey it is on.

This was an incredibly interesting event, and I’m very grateful to the trio of experts who gave their time and so generously shared some illuminating insights with us.

For me, the main takeaways were:

  • It is essential that all members of a board, and the CEO, have an inquiring mind when it comes to digital transformation
  • Flexibility, agility and diversity of thought are key attributes
  • Culture change is a fundamental enabler to digital transformation – and people must be at the heart of that, starting with the mindset and behavioural shifts around the board table that permeate an organisation
  • Successful new working practices and decisive action adopted during the pandemic must prevail; rather than a board snapping back to its old closed-minded ways
  • Hyperbolic communication and engagement are absolutely paramount to ensuring a successful transformation

It was a delight to see so many people attend the webinar – if you were unable to be with us on the day, you can enjoy a recording of the whole event here.

Jean-Pierre Green

Partner
Executive Search
Transformation, Digital & Technology Leadership


Jean-Pierre Green specialises in providing executive search solutions for the business transformation and technology leadership market. Clients include entrepreneurial SMEs through to large multinational organisations going through people, process and systems change.