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Thriving in the Digital Era Requires the Right Kind of Leadership


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Many CEOs have been in the industry for decades. They’ve been at the helm for a long time and have steered the company through the choppy waters that come with economic storms and technology tsunamis. They know how to grow the business, but now what seems like just a swell is turning into a solid wall to conquer: how digital technologies are changing the marketplace, customer behavior, product development, and workforce behavior. If CEOs fail to recognize this change, they risk being overtaken by the coming waves of change.

The new decade is going to bring a lot of changes. We see talks of AI, autonomous vehicles, and more. If the right leadership isn’t in place for 2020 and beyond, companies may find themselves floundering or frantically trying to catch up with the times. CEOs can’t rely on how things were done in the past, and the new digital technologies will be more about culture changes than the technology itself. It will require a change management effort that is led from the top to make sure these new technologies are effective and further business goals.

The right leader makes all the difference

In any technology implementation and change management effort, it’s tempting to place the CIO, the Chief Digital Officer, or the president of the new “digital” business unit in charge. But because these technologies are about enabling the business strategy, it may be wise to choose someone else. The idea is to have a defined business strategy that the digital strategy will move forward, then choose a leader who can execute on that. A lot of organizations underestimate the importance of putting a strong leader at the forefront, but that’s a mistake. Whoever leads the initiatives needs to have a reliable technology as well as a business background.

In a recent article, we highlighted the four key mindsets required for technology leadership in 2020. They need fearlessness to anticipate and prepare for change, be polymaths to align IT with business goals, have a growth mindset to adapt to new situations and look for opportunities in them, and still be the stoic operator that keeps everything running. 

In turn, the person leading the technology initiatives can foster a sense of ownership throughout the organization. Technology is no longer just the province of the IT department; it affects everyone in the company, from the front desk receptionist dealing with day to day telecommunications to the CEO generating reports based on the data collected by different departments. Digital is what enables everyone to do their job.

Every part of a digital strategy will need to consider what each business unit requires to be successful and to break down siloes. Leaders, including CEOs, can be victims of their success. The strategies that brought them to the top of the industry even five years ago are no longer enough. It’s a legacy mindset in a time when legacy IT systems are being retired in favor of technologies that completely change the business.

Ultimately, CEOs may not be the best leaders for technology initiatives, but they can adopt the four key mindsets that CIOs need to help bring about change. These mindsets will help them develop a business strategy that those leading technology initiatives can use to inform their decisions, whether it’s to move legacy systems to the cloud or double down on infrastructure investments. The goal is to keep up with the rapidly changing marketplace and enable employees to be more productive and efficient, as well as meet and exceed customer expectations. And thriving in this new world requires someone at the helm who can see how to set the right course for the organization.

Originally published Dec 31, 2019, updated Jan 30, 2023

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