How Can Leaders Succeed in the Digital Age?

Whatever industry you’re in, no company is immune from the advances in digital

Customers are blown away by experiences delivered by innovative companies and start to demand the same experiences from every other company they engage with. These expectations are also taken into their workplace, demanding the same slick experiences they have at home from their employer.

Companies that get it right derive disproportionate benefits, while those that don’t see their market share seep away to faster competitors and new upstarts. Even if the digital change is seemingly slow today, not building up the organisational digital capability leaves a business vulnerable in the future.

Humans are by their very nature reluctant to change, but for this to work successfully, everyone needs to be on board – whatever level they’re at. Luckily, after over two decades of disruption and reinvention, there are clear lessons to learn from the digital winners and losers.

Failing fast to move forward

Digital natives evangelise the fail forward culture, where the emphasis is on moving fast to test new products and services in market, learning from the results and iterating. Each iteration moves closer and closer to meeting customer needs and creating value to the business. ‘Failures’ are re-cast as ‘lessons learned’ through that journey and moving forward through iteration is the mantra for success.

Successful digital leaders foster and advocate this sort of culture in their teams, too. Even in industries where the cost of failure is catastrophic, successful digital leaders find a way to fail safely and move forward.

The financial services industry, for example, is highly regulated which has meant that until now, they’ve been slow to recognise the potential ROI of digital transformation. That said, we’re seeing organisations reach new levels of safety, security and customer experience as a result of taking risks. Capital One was the first to allow customers to use Amazon’s Alexa to access account details and even make transactions in a secure way. Fintechs like Monzo, N26 and Revolut have revolutionised the mobile payment experience. And not to forget, Barclays was one of the first to embrace Open Banking by giving customers the choice to view accounts from other banks.

Disruption being the norm

Failure isn’t just about exploring new territory. Disruption doesn’t have to come from external influences – businesses can take steps to disrupt themselves from the inside, out.

Take Netflix, for example. The business moved to video streaming long before the time was up for its video home delivery service. It disrupted itself, and successful digital leaders advocate this same principle into their own teams, too. By constantly questioning core

assumptions about how value is created and welcoming challenges from their employees, leaders can step ahead when it comes to digital transformation. It’s important to remember that disrupting yourself is critical, even when you are doing well financially.

Leading the change

Successful digital leaders don’t have to have intimate knowledge of JavaScript, blockchain or artificial intelligence, but they should embrace the possibilities of the latest technology disruptors and digital trends in their industry. I call it “technology curiosity”.

A major barrier to this adoption is fear. Leaders are often successful in their careers by having all the answers, so not understanding technology and digital can run against the grain for them. Burying their heads in the sand is not the answer though, because digital disruption won’t go away.

By embracing their ignorance, publicly or with trusted peers, to ask the probing questions that teach them what they need to know, leaders will encourage others within the business to embrace digital, and catalyse a culture of learning across the group. In my view, leaders need to embed a culture of obsessive thinking and boldness to allow the orgnisation to venture into technological unknowns.

Let your customers decide

Customer-centricity stands at the heart of successful digital leaders, who pay more than lip-service to their customers’ needs, but continuously and rigourously put customer needs at the centre of decision-making.

This requires integrity to maintain strong advocacy for customer needs, but also sophisticated decision-making to hold the needs of customers and balance them against business feasibility and financial viability.

Top-to-bottom approach

The digital world moves fast and it can be hard for leaders to turn this speed to their advantage. In a born-digital business, the pace of change is rapid and agile. In more traditional businesses, it can be even harder for leaders who must operate businesses while simultaneously trying to drive change. Sometimes, it can feel like these leaders are building the plane while trying to fly it.

To be successful in digital, those leading the change should put in place a top-to-bottom framework to run their team or business. This should include an orchestration centre to oversee digital changes, manage resources and keep the agility live in line with the overall digital strategy.

To make this work, teams need to be responsible for agile delivery of incremental and step-change digital improvements within their own deparments, which will allow those in charge to focus on the bigger picture. With all these steps in place, digital leaders can build the foundations for digital capability across the organization, through actively involving people from across the business in the change, and establishing platforms for future growth.

About the Author

Ramyani Basu is Partner at A.T. Kearney. A.T. Kearney is a leading global management consulting firm with offices in more than 40 countries. Since 1926, we have been trusted advisors to the world’s foremost organizations. A.T. Kearney is a partner-owned firm, committed to helping clients achieve immediate impact and growing advantage on their most mission-critical issues. For more information, visit