Ten years ago, businesses were racing to understand and capitalize on concepts such as data mining, search technology, and virtual collaboration.
Today, digital transformation—which describes how digital technology is fundamentally changing the ways businesses operate and deliver value to customers—rules the roost and is disrupting companies everywhere, from their operating models to their infrastructures.
But that’s only part of the equation. “Digital transformation is actually a human transformation,” said Brian Solis, principal analyst at consulting and research company Altimeter. “We’ve learned that people have mistakenly overemphasized the role of technology in change. What this comes down to is leadership.”
With that in mind, we spoke with nine executives and thought leaders about what makes good leaders great, the habits that inform success, and specific skills they must hone to realize this transformation.
1. Be Empathetic
Truly great digital transformation leaders understand how human dynamics—fear, politics, ego, sabotage, and safety—play into people’s feelings about change. They don’t assume their teams see the world their way. Rather, they see how others might perceive things, then “bridges between how they see it and what you’re trying to do,” Solis said.
“It’s not about getting people to follow you. It’s empowering people to lead their own initiatives and collaborate with you and others,” he told CMO by Adobe. “It’s about unification of a bigger movement of getting people to bring about change because they want to—not because they have to.”
Amid all that change, when products and processes are shifting, leaders are tasked with ensuring that they weave humanity into every touch point, said Leesa Wytock, senior director of experience at brand strategy and design firm Siegel+Gale. That’s difficult to do without empathy.
“Empathy is what allows you to get the best work out of your team, it’s what makes you a good partner to work with, and it’s what makes your digital transformations successful,” she told CMO by Adobe. “A lot of user experience work deals with behavioral science and empathy. You need to put yourself in the user’s shoes to get a product or process right.”
2. Step Outside Your Box
According to Jeffrey Brandt, CIO at national law firm Jackson Kelly, seeking out connections, experiences, and information outside of your particular industry can help light on what other businesses are doing in their digital transformations.
“It’s important to look at other industries and what’s impacting and challenging them, how they’re solving problems or implementing different techniques and workflows, and how all that may be applicable to what I’m doing,” he said. “Sometimes you discover an approach to something that you never would have thought about.”
Kathy Schneider, CMO at IT infrastructure company Sungard Availability Services, finds outside connections and opportunities at roundtable events.
“The dialogue and discussions are always immensely useful, and there’s a great amount of peer learning,” she said. “Talking with executives from other companies gives you perspective about what’s working for them and what isn’t, and how you might apply that where you are.”
Equally important is finding these experiences and opportunities for your team, Wytock added. Siegel+Gale, for example, brings culture hackers or thought leaders into the office for Ted-Talk-style discussions.
“Bringing in outside influences helps shake people out of their day-to-day and inspires them,” she said. “It’s been great for everyone and has even resulted in new product ideas.”
3. Hone Your Communication Skills
Communicating effectively—that is, knowing what to articulate, how, and in what context—is key to leading effectively, said Dominic Siano, digital marketing and transformation consultant at business and technology services company Cognizant. This means consciously reducing digital and technical jargon when you’re presenting to business stakeholders or with customers.
“In all of your communications, you want your audience—whoever it may be—to feel like they’re on your level and that they can participate in that conversation,” he said. “Learning to convey complicated messages simply takes time and practice but pays dividends. Other leaders and employees will find you more approachable, easier to talk to, and fully understood, which is key in leading a digital transformation.”
Another tip: Watch the room when others present or pitch ideas, Sungard Availability Services’ Schneider said. Look for techniques that are well-received, and note which ones fall flat.
“Communication, especially during a digital transformation, is so, so important,” she said. “It requires buy-in from executives and teams from across the organization, and knowing how to finesse your style and frame the argument for why you’re doing this and why it’s important is key to your success.”