To Have a Digital Transformation You Need a Digital Culture

As an executive recruiter in the digital space for the last 17 yrs and a former pro tennis player, I have learned a lot about what it takes to properly transform, to take your game from one level to the next. To be honest, it’s really hard!

As an executive recruiter in the digital space for the last 17 yrs and a former pro tennis player, I have learned a lot about what it takes to properly transform, to take your game from one level to the next. To be honest, it’s really hard! The good news is that, if you’re already in the process of a digital transformation, you’re at an advantage. According to the International Data Corporation, technologies and services related to digital transformation will reach the value of $2 trillion by 2022. If you haven’t already, now’s a good time for your organization to capitalize on this profit.

Like many others, I used to think of digital transformation as purely a technology overhaul. Boy, was I wrong! You won’t be successful unless you think of it as a total shift in company culture. Making your company “digital” means speeding up communications, flattening hierarchy, and giving greater autonomy to employees at every level. So, let’s talk about what that means.

Culture shock on the court

A defining element of successful digital transformation is a culture that rewards and celebrates agility. Coming from a tennis background, this resonated with me deeply. I can remember the hours I spent improving my footwork, running drills, and getting quicker on my feet through a lot of trial and error. In our fast-paced world, it’s crucial to be able to fail fast and make independent judgment calls and on-the-spot decisions.

Naturally, this leads to a flatter hierarchy that helps to speed up the decision-making process. Besides an emphasis on acting quicker, a digital culture also promotes:

  • An external, rather than an internal, orientation
  • Delegation over control
  • Boldness over caution
  • Collaboration more than individual effort

When you allow your company to evolve with the times and embrace the new digital culture, you also attract new talent. Millennials, in particular, are drawn to digital companies because of their culture of collaboration, the promise of greater autonomy, and the creative environment it offers to the younger generation. Think doubles in tennis – isn’t it more fun to do something you love alongside someone else? It always was for me.

Coaching through change

The trouble is, change doesn’t occur overnight and strong leadership is needed to make it through the transformation in one piece. Behaviors, patterns, and norms that have previously been rewarded in the office are built over time. As leaders, it’s our job to help employees “understand how their actions support your organization’s mission and vision, and why their support and buy-in is important.”

The reason employee support is critical for a successful digital transformation is because ” the future of work is entirely digital with overarching human intervention.” While there’s often an emphasis on the technology part of digital transformation, the key is really the culture and the people surrounding it.

Also, just because employees are given all the digital tools needed for their jobs doesn’t mean they’ll know how to integrate them. It’s like in tennis, the fact that you have a racket doesn’t mean you are good at tennis. You need someone to show you if you’ve never used it before. Essentially, leaders become coaches when our organization goes through a change. We’re here to be in our employees’ corner throughout the entire transformation. Without this aspect, digital transformation returns to being a technology overhaul (which we just discussed it’s not).

It’s not about the gear

The question we need to ask ourselves at this point is: Why do some digital transformation efforts succeed and others fail? The simple answer is that “if people lack the right mindset to change and the current organizational practices are flawed, digital transformation will simply magnify those flaws.”

In my experience, changes of any kind are resisted due to fear of the unknown, fear of uncertainty, or simply fear of change in general. A big fear for many employees going through a digital transformation is the threat of being replaced. As leaders (and essentially, coaches), we have to understand and sympathize with these fears. But we should also emphasize the opportunities involved in the process of transformation.

For instance, digital transformation is a chance for everyone to adopt new norms and embrace the characteristics of a digital culture – customer-centricity, data used for live insights and decision-making rather than past performance metrics, failing fast, frequent user testing, minimum hierarchy, cross-functional teams rather than department silos, and a focus on what the customer needs rather than what your company offers. To ace the shift, embrace aspects of a digital culture without losing sight of what made the organization strong to begin with.

Whipped into (digital) shape

“The good thing about culture is that it provides coherence and continuity. The bad thing about culture is that it can root a company in past practices that no longer fit a changing world.” The trick is finding the right balance between digitization and staying true to your company’s original mission and goals. The best way I’ve found to strike this balance is by either building, preserving, or reorienting certain business practices.

Digital practices, like encouraging employees to fail fast by conducting experiments rapidly and often and putting an emphasis on intentional testing rather than decision-making based on gut feelings, are known to improve performance. You want to encourage agility and quicker decision-making structures, just like coaches do to players on the court. This leads employees to self-organize “quickly to conduct experiments and achieve their goals, without worrying about a collaborator’s title, function, or organizational affiliation.”

Some parts of a company’s old process are beneficial to the digital transformation of a company. Don’t get caught up in changing every aspect of your business immediately, as small, incremental changes will be longer-lasting and more likely to be adopted into the culture of the company.

It’s the same with tennis. When you do the little things first (practice, play a great game), it contributes to the bigger things (winning an important game, title, championship).

Given the fast-paced, connected world we live in today, a fresh perspective regarding how to anticipate customer needs is necessary. “The emphasis on data and results, meanwhile, drives accountability, encouraging persistent striving for customer-focused, scalable results.” This new system that marries interrelated values with digitally-enabled practices can be amazingly effective… when leaders like you and I get it right.

Just like you can’t get to the final game without the right equipment, time spent on the court, and a coach to help you, you can’t have a successful digital transformation without the right mindset, tools in place, and a strong leader to bring it all together.

What are your keys for successfully leading a company through digital transformation?


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