The DNA of Digital Leaders … digital transformation is not enough, leaders need a new mindset to create a tech-enabled future

May 26, 2021

Every market has been shaken-up by the seismic shifts in consumer behaviour, global economics and emergent technology. How we live, work and learn, shop and socialise. The Covid pandemic has simply accelerated this transformation, maybe by 10 years in just 12 months.

Markets are blurred, borderless and hybrid – physical and digital, but also fusing geographies and sectors. Retail is socialised, sports are gamified, transport is integrated as mobility, and every company is a technology company. Payments are digital, entertainment is on demand, fashion is sampled virtually, healthcare is recast on an app as wellbeing.

Customers have new agendas, from social and environmental, to who they trust and how they are influenced. The exponential power of networks transforms the old rules of business, from the way people connect in new communities, to how organisations connect as global ecosystems. Speed and agility, innovation and change are relentless. Disruption, and opportunity, are everywhere.

Airbnb has redefined travel as a platform, Babylon has reinvented healthcare with AI, and Coursera has refocused education for all. Gaming brands like Fortnite are the social spaces for GenZ and launchpads for music, while super-apps like Grab and Jio puts every type of service into your hands. Indeed, Haier will soon give away its fridges and washing machines, in order to manage your life.

Leading beyond technology

“Digital transformation” is one of the most popular yet misunderstood terms in business. While new technologies, from AI-driven apps to market-creating platforms, predictive analytics and realtime marketing, are enablers of transformation, it is about much more. It is business transformation – strategic, innovative, human and relentless – and personal, or leadership, transformation too.

82% of companies recognise the need for digital leaders, according to MIT research, yet only 40% say that they are developing them. While most entrepreneurs are born digital, more established organisations and their leaders can be digital too – look at Disney or Lego, Fujifilm or GM, Nestle or Rio Tinto. Such organisations have the scale and power to create even more impact digitally.

Digital is really about a mindset. Digital leaders see their business in a new context, unlocking new opportunities for innovation and growth. Brands become part of larger marketspaces, redefined by customer context and aspiration, rather than product. Audiences, channels, solutions and value are reframed and redefined. Mikkeller’s craft beer to fitness, or Lululemon’s yoga beer for women.

Digital leaders embrace the new intelligence, speed and capabilities available to engage in new ways – from decision making to fast development, smarter logistical networks, personal and collaborative brand engagement. At the core of this are new business models – reimagining how the organisation works, internally and externally, with new services, new revenue streams, and new ways to win.

Building a future mindset

How do you build a future mindset, one that is a digital mindset, a growth mindset? You start from the future back, inspired by a world of dramatic change. Insights from across sectors spark new ideas and opportunities for what you might do. Investment banks exploring the new business models in pharma or energy, insurance companies inspired by healthcare and entertainment.

Having the courage and catalysts to open up your mindspace, creates a new marketspace of opportunities to explore. Facilitated application of insights and ideas, enables leaders to map out the challenges and potential roadmaps ahead, for business and themselves. We use sketch maps to shape a “book of dreams” that becomes a foundation to go deeper, and for practical action.

Digital leaders recognise that digital means context and culture, creativity and capability – from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos saying “it’s always day one” to Emily Weiss’ blog that became the world’s fastest growing beauty business, Wang Xing at Meituan knowing China’s customers best, to Fujifilm’s Shigetaka Komori with his “never step” innovation cycle.

While the pandemic was a time of shake-up, in markets and emotionally for everyone, it can also become a springboard to more radical transformation. We will probably see more change in the next 10 years than the last 250 years.

Now is the moment to reimagine the road ahead, to reenergise your organisation and market, and for leaders to step up with the courage to create a better future.


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