Digital Transformation Starts With Leadership

Article by Audrey Sarsfield

Digital transformation starts with where you are and progress requires an evolution of ideas, technology and leaders. Strong leaders understand digital capabilities are driving market dynamics by expanding their presence and govern how customers experience their products and services. Characteristics of these leaders and businesses evolve through the ability to be:

  • Assertive and growth minded
  • Optimistic with discipline
  • Problem solvers and data-driven
  • Anticipating the needs of the customer and/or market
  • Accepting of risk
  • Embrace and share failures

In order to develop digital capabilities across the organization it takes a commitment by leadership to modernize the organization structure, by utilizing a hybrid model that both upskills existing associates, while engaging external experts. Diversifying talent provides the ability to scale and stay the course to drive market goals.

The Leadership Advantage

Leadership can be an advantage or a liability and every company is different; however, executive teams that have diverse members across genders, ethnicities, cultures, and generations have a direct correlation to higher financial performance. In contrast, homogenous leadership will gravitate to their comfort zone and stay close to what they have always done. This sameness proves to be a barrier to advancing the organization, because advancing an organization in today's rapidly changing market place, often requires disrupting the status quo and challenging the business as usual approach.

"Companies in the top-quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile. For ethnic/cultural diversity, top-quartile companies were 33% more likely to outperform on profitability." - McKinsey, Delivering through Diversity, January 2018

Strategies and tactics that may have worked successfully in the past, are not always the same capabilities that allow that organization to thrive in next two, three or five years. This new, and inevitable future, can result in a "loss of identity" for senior leadership. Feeling threatened or weak, they are unable to see the resources or opportunities ahead. They are challenged to see the value to create internal disruption, inspire new ways of thinking, and drive change. This limited and cautious position, greatly increases the probability of failure in the organization's digital transformation. Typically, this is because of the presence of a legacy structure where it is extremely vertical and siloed, oriented around functional individualism. This traditional environment is not conducive to a business culture that supports continuous improvement, iterative development, and ongoing collaboration, based on real time data and decision making. Companies that are winning in the age of disruption have a dynamic, collegial and agile culture and this has been proven to be the foundation for success.

Digital-Age Leadership

Digital-age leaders are upskilling talent and providing the growth-minded guiderails for teams to easily read and react to the business, be creative, take bold actions. These leaders drive the transformation that requires shattering the hierarchical red-tape and empowering associates at all levels.

Although brief, digitalization has a history and an intense direction to strengthening the value chain but planning it and doing it are completely different stories. A digital transformation takes a resilient leader with the passion and persistence for a marathon with a lot of grit because the inevitable culture clash can be brutal. Experienced and responsible leaders will recognize window dressing opposed to critical mass to move the needle. It is critical these leaders are supported and endorsed to take risks to move fast for major round of progress.

An unleashed digital leader can expedite change through results. They will correlate progress horizontally to create new habits and inertia to drive momentum and motivation for continuous improvement. These efforts tend to reveal new leaders and provide a platform to collapse verticals and harness the potential of these brave leaders that hold themselves and others accountable. They have the courage to look in the mirror and ask:

  • What am I doing?
  • How am I contributing?
  • Where can I have a positive impact?
  • What did I learn?
  • Am I doing everything I can?

These leaders understand a growth mind-set, are motivated, comfortable with ambiguity, and ultimately understand the value of failure and the benefits. It is not a permanent state—it's about learning and process of elimination.

Leadership is not compliance, embracing diversity is a real opportunity for everyone. We should all think more strategically about who we hire, develop and promote.

  • Are their views the same/different than ours?
  • Have they demonstrated courage and integrity in difficult situations?
  • Are they interested in serving to lead, inspire, and grow others?
  • Are they agile and comfortable with dynamic changes?
  • How do they handle failure? Can they promote it?
  • Are they open-minded? and raise challenges?
  • Are they problem solvers and growth-minded?
  • Do they have a bias for action?

External Leadership

Executive leadership has the responsibility to have a business strategy that will help define the framework for a digital transformation and a plan to address the support and endorsement needs. Often due to their own gaps in understanding the maturity, complexity or context of a digital transformation, leadership will source a partner. Strategic agencies such as Bain, Deloitte, McKinsey, PwC, etc. are partners for many large organizations across functions to support these initiatives. Companies default to these firms for guidance, planning and execution seeing it as an insurance policy or maybe a guarantee for success. In reality the greatest value is the significant financial commitment that requires to be the governing body that evokes a commitment, focus, and discipline that the company is unable to orchestrate on their own.


The opportunities and options are endless, stop trying to wade through everyone's opinion. Agree to make a decision and get started. Be clear about where you are and even clearer about the vision of where you want to be. Acknowledge this is hard and we will not get everything right—we are all learning together! Spend time assessing if the right leadership is in place to chart the course and deliver on it. As you recalibrate leadership, be thoughtful and diversify. Then, unleash those hired to do what they were hired to do.

About the Author

Audrey Sarsfield has been leading digital initiatives and transformations across the globe and commercial value chain over the last 20 years. She embraces every challenge as an opportunity to add value and improve business outcomes as the new digital frontier takes on the connected customer experience. Audrey is steadfast in her application of proven building blocks that are continually refined and backed by data and analytics. Her core strategies are focused on building digital capabilities, automating processes, and empowering business owners at all levels to deliver new business models and revenue growth through digital platforms, channels and tactics. Audrey started writing to share experiences, methods, and insights with the hope to make it a little easier or better for others in their journey to disrupt the status quo.

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