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Jeroen DerynckThe five traits of a successful digital leader

by Jeroen Derynck

December 2016


Innovation is a dirty word… which is why we started to call it disruption. Today, disruption stands for the new digital adversaries that are aggressively entering your market space at an unparalleled speed. These disrupters are quickly increasing their footprint in a variety of sectors: banking, in-surance, manufacturing, mobility, communications, health,…

Innovation is a dirty word… which is why we started to call it disruption. Today, disruption stands for the new digital adversaries that are aggressively entering your market space at an unparalleled speed. These disrupters are quickly increasing their footprint in a variety of sectors: banking, in-surance, manufacturing, mobility, communications, health,… There are no safe havens anymore in an uberconnected society, sign of the times is the Financial Times reporting that almost 100.000 banking jobs were cut in 2015 as a result of increased digitali-sation. In that same year, VCs happily poured big bucks into promising Fintech startups: $13.8 bil-lion was invested in financial technology business alone.

Leading with digital requires more than technological innovation In order to deal with digital disruption, organisations must undergo a radical transformation. So they hire expensive innovation consultants, set up sandboxes, order ping pong tables by the dozen, run hackathons and tear down office walls. As you might expect, the transformation also goes hand in hand with a reshuffling of the cards in the boardroom. The Chief Information Officer now has to share his turf with Heads of Innovation, Disruption Managers or the Chief Digital Officer. But frankly my dear, changing structures, report-ing lines and office layouts is not what will help you win the war. If you want to attack the disrup-tion, you must go beyond the windowdressing and be prepared to overhaul the corporate DNA. In a world where digital is the next best thing since sliced bread you’d better wake up, smell the coffee and start with an early breakfast.

How to recognise a digital leader? When innovation is evolving at such a relentless speed, it will be no surprise to hear that most or-ganisations will become technology companies if they want to remain in business. The key to sur-vival lies in building APIs, testing new business models, investing in mobile and turning data into a competitive advantage. But in the end, digital transformation is a people thing and you will need the right people that can steer the organisation and help your board navigate the waters of disruption. In my conversations with senior executives and boards, I often get the question: “So who should lead the digital transformation?” Spoiler alert ahead: it is not an MBA or years of experience in a technology department that will land you the job. Instead, I advise them to look for the right DNA, entrepreneurial skills and capabilities to combine doing and thinking. I illustrate this by using the “Innovator’s DNA”, a concept first coined by Harvard Business Review in 2009. The Innovator’s DNA centers on the five “discovery skills” that separates the innovate entrepreneur - in my case the real digital leaders - from the wannabes: associating, observing, questioning, experimenting and networking.

1. They Associate Associating is the ability to connect the unrelated dots: it is the creative process where ideas, prob-lems and questions lead to an Aha moment. The power of association brought us network orches-trators like Amazon, Uber, Alibaba and Airbnb. These players understand that you don’t have to own the assets to become big, all you need is to orchestrate a digital marketplace where buyers and sellers can connect directly and Gotcha! Digital leaders ideally come from outside of your in-dustry as they dare to question the status quo and take a fresh approach to all things established. They don’t have to think outside the box because they have never been in the box.

2. They Question Our three-year old son drives us crazy with his “what’s this” and “why” questions. Questioning is what sets the real innovators apart because they look beyond the technology advantage and ques-tion the obvious. How come these digital marketplaces outpace us in terms of customer experi-ence, speed, agility, service and price? Understanding what problems (for the customer) they are solving is more important than how they solve it. Billions of funding have gone to the on-demand economy because your customers are demanding instant gratification with the push of a button on their smartphone. P2P lending solves the problem of lengthy loan application process, taxi on-demand services remove the need (and irritation) to queue for a cab and delivery startups cater to your convenience.

3. They Observe Another characteristic of a digital leader is that they are constantly scanning the rapidly changing industry landscape: what is going on in my sector, how is customer behaviour changing and who are my new competitors? Companies like CBinsights or Owler are premier destinations when it comes to market research and competitor analysis. They will tell you what is happening in the IOT space, which company is destined to be the next insurtech unicorn, who is funding hardware startups and where the smart money goes in eHealth. Sticking with the food analogy, observing and watching brings the meat on the bone for making the right strategic decisions.

4. They Experiment Experimenting is not what happens in your expensive innovation lab, it is what happens outside the lab. The idea behind experimentation is to quickly ship your ideas or new digital products and get early feedback from your customers. Experimentation can only happen in a culture where failure is an option: making mistakes is an essential part of the learning journey and requires both an appetite for risk and the willingness to fail. Active experimentation does not mean that you aim for a minimum viable product once. Instead you go for a minimum viable transformation where you trial run new emerging technologies, introduce agile project management methodologies and set up self steering teams.

5. They Network Digital leaders get out into the open and do a whole lot of networking. Their networking is focused on idea generation which explains why they never go the annual industry summit (same old people, same old thinking) but are found at start-up pitches, technology fairs and internet summits. The purpose of this networking is primarily to partner up with bright start-ups and expand the business ecosystem while honouring the old adage: keep your friends close and your digital adversaries closer. This is what Venture Capitalists are doing all the time so don’t worry, you will not be the only one over 40 in the room.

Ready to take the lead? Now that you know what to look for, you will wonder: what’s next? The good thing is that the above described skills are not related to a genetic makeup. Everybody can learn, practice and master them. Together with Technology Transfer we have developed a brand new seminar where business and IT executives can learn to master the fundamentals of digital transformation. “Leading with digital” will give you a unique insight into the new forces at play in a digital-first world. the program has been designed to go beyond the hype of digital disruption (the Why) and provides CIOs, CDOs, digital project managers and strategists with practical guidance on how to start up the much-needed transformation (the How). During two days, we prepare the next generation of aspiring digital leaders and let you discover how to scale for growth and help you navigate the rapidly evolving landscape of disruptive technologies, innovative business models, new job descriptions and emerging organisational designs.