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2021 and beyond: the evolving role of a digital leader

Business Chief North America speaks to Jaggaer and McKinsey Digital exploring the role of a digital leader in 2021 and beyond

|Apr 26|magazine15 min read

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.

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