Why leadership is the new focus for digital transformation

Jennifer Armstrong / July 2018

As Squared Online, the award-winning digital marketing course developed by Google is revamped, rebooted and released in a new version, we caught up with Joris Merks-Benjaminsen, European Head of Programmes at Google Digital Academy to tell us why this marketing education programme is putting leadership skills front and center.

Over five years running Google Digital Academy Masterclasses, Joris has witnessed close-up the real experiences of companies looking to undergo digital transformation. “We often find ourselves teaching things people already know but still don't do,” he says. “That's the biggest challenge in transformation. Many professionals have an idea of what they should be doing, they know that their company is not doing it, and they’re frustrated about it. Companies often come to our Masterclasses and think that they're the only ones with these problems, but actually everyone’s coming up against similar stumbling blocks.”

So the team adapted their approach to match what they were seeing. “We try to strike a certain tone,” says Joris. “We introduce a problem, recognize that people are already aware of it, and then ask why it continues to happen. In almost all cases, people say that their leaders don't support digital change, but if you allow that to be the conclusion of the conversation then everyone walks away frustrated.”

That’s why Joris believes people need to be changemakers, empowered and active, instead of waiting for change. “Leadership attributes matter so much,” explains Joris. “Most of the people we talk to are middle managers, and when they pull together, they have huge influence on the course of a company.”

Joris and the Squared Online team examined a wide range of leadership principles in the light of their experiences of digital transformation, picking out four key attributes that are the biggest change-making motivators:

  • Be a digital champion
  • Be collaborative
  • Think customer-first
  • Be innovative

Here’s how they each make a difference, and the ways they work together.

1. Be a digital champion

A digital champion bridges the divide between digital capabilities and customer and company needs. More than discussing new technical features, digital champions directly apply digital technology to solve problems for colleagues and consumers. Recognize the tools at your disposal, then implement them for maximum impact. “If you want to be a changemaker, you have to go beyond the technical knowledge,” says Joris. “You have to apply that learning to marketing strategy, and change the attitudes of people around you.”

2. Be collaborative

“Caring beyond your own department is the first step in being collaborative,” says Joris. “Someone who works in an online department, for example, should still care about what happens in offline stores and how customers move between those two channels. That means building connections between teams, understanding what they do and respecting it, so that, ultimately, you can raise the right challenges with the right people.”

Collaboration is vital in the Kickstart projects that make up an important aspect of the new Squared Online. Kickstart projects are small enough to be executable in about three months, but large and complex enough to disrupt some old ways of working. They are important drivers of transformation; it’s transforming by doing. “No one can push a Kickstart project within a silo, it always has to happen across silos, so a cross-functional project team is vital,” says Joris. “Everybody chips in, shares in a project’s success, and defines the next project together.”

3. Think customer-first

Approaching issues from the perspective of a large organization almost always gives rise to silo behaviors. Not only can that obstruct efficiency, it also makes it harder to agree on goals. “Start looking at things from the perspective of the customer, and you are confronted with fragmented behaviors of your organization,” says Joris. “Consumers don’t care about your org chart, they just want a seamless experience. As a changemaker, if you build your argument on the basis of the way you’re treating your customers, that’s really powerful. Ultimately everybody can agree in principle that they want customers to have a good experience, so it's a powerful mechanism to get people from all parts of a company to become aligned. It cuts through specialist, technical discussions that can be hard to understand for senior decision makers.

“We’re addicted to measurability, but how do you develop accurate proxy metrics for measuring something new?”

- Joris Merks-Benjaminsen

4. Be innovative

Being innovative means more than doing things you’ve never done before, it’s about accepting that innovation is uncertain, too. “Transformation often gets stuck when people fixate on optimising something they’ve been doing in the past,” says Joris. “That happens because leaders want to have proof that something will definitely work, but you can't prove something works before you do it. Some digital transformation challenges require heavy investment over a sustained period of time before you can see any measurable results, and even then, those might be negative results that you need to learn from to nail the challenge.”

Changemakers need to be brave, convincing colleagues that in order to innovate, they have to accept that they can’t predict the outcome of something they’ve never tried. “One tactic is to reserve a proportion of a budget for innovation projects and understand that the goal of those is to learn and prepare for the future: invest, test, move it into your regular business and optimize it further,” says Joris. “It’s an R&D approach. We’re addicted to measurability, but how do you develop accurate proxy metrics for measuring something new? Create an experimental budget, knowing that it won't instantly deliver great ROI but it will keep you from becoming irrelevant over time.”

Championing change from any position

All four changemaker attributes need to be in place to drive digital change, says Joris, and though each is valuable on its own, all operate within one simple, essential mission.

“We want to inspire people to champion and drive digital-first ideas and principles, wherever they sit within an organization,” says Joris. “Being a changemaker is about identifying the mismatch between what a company should be doing and what it's actually doing, then raising that with the right people with the right tone of voice so that they understand the challenge, see the urgency and get things moving.”

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