2021 and beyond: the evolving role of a digital leader
What does it mean to be a digital leader?
“The rate of technological change will arguably be faster in the next several years than in the past 25 combined,” begins Jim Bureau, CEO of Jaggaer. “New tools, features, and functionalities go to market nearly every day. Having access to the latest and greatest technology isn’t what defines digital leadership – it’s how organisations leverage these tools and capabilities at scale to solve problems strategically, drive value-adding initiatives, meet business objectives, and equip customers to achieve their desired outcomes.”
Those organisations that are digital leaders act on early signs of change, “These organisations are forward thinking. They see opportunity and embrace it. They know the longer they wait to adopt a new technology, the harder it will be to catch up to peers and the market. They recognise that digital technology is a means to achieving goals, not the end. And, most importantly, they understand digital leadership is about enabling their customers to also be digital leaders, so these customers can deliver success for their own customers.”
With digital leadership drastically changing in the last few years, Rodney Zemmel, Global Leader of McKinsey Digital, adds that “it’s now the determining role in leading successful digital transformations. Today, it is the role of the CEO that can truly affect the scale of change and commitment required for a digital transformation to be successful. Pre-COVID, businesses were already shifting to this new ‘digital era’ but now more than ever digital touches every corner of a business and success depends on its ability to generate new value from digital.”
The essential traits of a digital leader
When it comes to being a digital leader, Bureau emphasises, “the essential traits are the same today as before the pandemic. The difference lies in their urgency and significance. Digital leaders have vision, ingenuity, a collaborative spirit, and a relentless focus on customer success.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, “the pandemic highlighted the need for agility and resilience, and the fact that honing these two organisational traits should start well before disruptive events occur.” As a result, “business and technology leaders are speeding up digital investments and strategies to survive and recover from the health crisis. In the longer term, they’re also tapping automation to act faster and create space to think bigger and more strategically, putting them in a better position to guide their organisations and customers through future disruptions.”
Adding to these traits, Zemmel says “digital CEOs need to constantly think how technology is going to change their business, and understand how value is migrating. To be a successful digital leader, you need to reimagine value and own the change to make this happen. By not effectively communicating what your digital transformation is and letting a thousand digital flowers bloom, is a recipe for failure to scale.”
Reflecting on how the traits have evolved since the pandemic Zemmel adds, “everything is now accelerated ten-fold, and the need to evolve and shift priorities is paramount. It’s imperative for the C-suite to work together to ensure they stay afloat and innovate. We’ve heard from many CEOs over the course of last year that tell us what they thought would take months or years to achieve, they’re now doing in days or weeks. This is unlikely to slow down in 2021.”
COVID-19: the role of a digital leader
“During the initial outbreak, digital leaders brought clarity and support as organisations were forced to transition into a new way of doing things practically overnight. Everything from partner and supplier communication and negotiations, contract reviews and approvals, internal collaboration, receipt of goods and supplies, and more, had to be rethought for a remote working environment,” reflects Bureau.
“As an essential service, banks needed to source personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff at a short notice, and in a manner that didn’t require in-person signature. Companies, public sector organisations, and educational establishments required completely paper-free procurement processes to avoid supplier on-site visits for bid delivery. These teams also needed centralized remote access to verified supplier data, so they could quickly purchase critical supplies in the event of an emergency.
“Digital leaders offered direction around how to best leverage existing cloud-based infrastructure, and where to make additional investments, to preserve business continuity and reduce unnecessary risk while organisations made this shift to remote operations.”
Before COVID-19, technology pilots were carefully planned and slower to move. However, the pandemic has highlighted the value of speed. “The immediate priority for all digital leaders is to build a forward-thinking, adaptive culture that embraces innovation and experimentation. Transformation happens much faster when folks at all levels of the organisation are bought in, raise ideas, and play their part in driving digital initiatives forward.”
While many businesses were already on a digital transformation journey before COVID-19 Zemmel adds that “the reality is 70% of digital transformations fail to achieve their full potential. The biggest barriers are a lack of alignment around a top down business-led technology roadmap, a lack of matching resources to priorities, and a failure to build capabilities, including agile working.”
Post-COVID-19: the future for digital leaders
“In the early stages of the pandemic, the focus was on getting and implementing technology as fast as possible to address the immediate impacts. Now, the emphasis is shifting to ensuring the tools are being used in a way that drives long-term business value,” says Bureau.
Many organisations believe that adoption is the biggest barrier to enterprise-wide implementation. “This is often due to skills shortages and the fact those expected to use the tool don’t always have prior experience. In addition to providing robust training and support, look for solutions with strong user interfaces. User experience is more important than ever now that we’re operating in a remote working environment.”
With using technology strategically being at the heart of digital leadership, “identifying areas in which you can invest further in automation. By eliminating routine and low value tasks, will provide teams with more capacity to focus on projects that require more intellectual thinking and drive higher-level initiatives forward.
Looking ahead, “digital leaders are asking how they keep this pace and momentum going. This pandemic has made digital even more relevant for businesses. They’ve had to undergo their own transformations overnight so that they can serve their customers through digital channels that might not have existed before COVID. Leaders have had to make hard and often high-stakes decisions fast to ensure their resilience, and as I’ve mentioned, digital, technology and data need to be at the centre of it all,” concludes Zemmel.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.