Evolution of Leadership in the Digital Era

As more and more companies make the move from analog to digital, the demand for greater digital competence has led to the rise of a new kind of Business 2.0 leader — the Chief Digital Officer (CDO).

In the Strategy+Business Autumn 2017 (Issue 88) article — “The New Class of Digital Leaders”, there were three key insights that validated what I’ve witnessed firsthand through my work with leaders and companies trying to leap-frog to the 21st century pursuing digital solutions.

#1 Strategy & Alignment: a strong CDO has to, not only come to the C-Suite table armed with a sensible and dynamic digital strategy, but also a game plan on how to tackle the fundamental challenges of cultural dynamics, highly matrixed and complex org structures, disparate legacy systems and processes, shortage of digital talent, and traditional governance models.

The key to achieving quick wins for the CDO lies in their ability to be a savvy “politician”, and not necessarily relying on their domain expertise to persuade others.  They are able to align everyone on the vision, purpose and goals for a digital strategy, and what success looks and feels like, to get everyone excited about the possibilities and realities of the journey.

#2 Buy-In & Adoption: highly effective CDOs may hail from a variety of backgrounds; i.e., Marketing, Sales, Customer Service, Operations, Innovation, and Technology, but they also have a common thread in their approach to achieve the “WHAT” and the “HOW”.  They have learned the art and science behind behavioral change to influence peers and subordinates to gain buy-in and foster adoption.  They’re great storytellers and negotiators who enable others to make the intellectual and emotional connection on the benefits of the digital future — “…the digital leader needs to be able to set strategy but also ensure buy-in across the organization.” 1

#3 Talent Acquisition & Development: companies who are investing in digital technology to drive a more consumer-centric business must also consider an equal or greater investment in developing digital talent.  Interestingly, a CDO survey revealed when seeking to fill a CDO role, companies are going external.

The optics of this move would suggest that the traditional CTO / CIO roles don’t possess the necessary capabilities to make a positive impact to drive a digital future.  When in reality, technology leaders are trying to figure out how to make the leap to grow themselves and lead their organization to add value in the digital era.  Given the chance, CTOs / CIOs can pivot quickly and grow into the CDO role, but the dominant logic is to import the talent without a development track for incumbents.  Enter the digital purple squirrel, whose mere presence can create confusion about who’s really in charge of the IT strategy and organization.

In our opinion, companies need both roles — the CTO / CIO supporting the daily running of the legacy systems while the CDO is laying the foundation for leading a digital transformation journey — and together they work to evolve the IT organization, and over time, cultivate a new way of thinking about collaboration, leadership succession and development.

That said, the talent challenge doesn’t stop at the leadership level.  According to PwC’s most recent Digital IQ study revealed “…the lack of properly skilled teams was considered the number one hurdle to achieving expected results from digital technology investments…” 2   This new hybrid of the Technology C-Suite will have to find creative ways to work within these known constraints while keeping the wheels on the bus, implementing new lean digital initiatives, building high performing teams with cross-pollinated talent, gaining buy-in and adoption, and promoting their strategic vision.

Leadership Moment: If you’re a Technology Executive — what attitude and strategic outlook do you offer about a digital future that inspires others?  How are you leading the way to bring enthusiasm, energy, talents, ideas, motivation, and new problems to solve? How are you seeking out the purple squirrels to build your digital talent pipeline?

For more information about the BLI Executive Leadership Institute™

Contact: Rhonda L. Frith-Lyons @ rhonda@thesassyentrepreneur.com or

Tom Fehlman @ tlfehlman@gmail.com   


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