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6 Ways Business Leaders Can Succeed In The Digital Age

Digitization is sweeping across industries. If you want to lead a digital transformation, you’ll want to read this

Tue Oct 29 2019

Business today is characterized by high volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. If you want to succeed as a business leader, you need to understand how to manage in the new era of digital business.

Prof. Dr. Karolin Frankenberger is a top digital transformation expert and the academic director of the Executive MBA HSG in the Executive School of Management, Technology and Law at the University of St Gallen. She’s a former McKinsey executive with a PhD and recognized as a leading mind in business by Thinkers 50.

Together with a team of writers, she’s co-authored the new book, The Digital Transformer’s Dilemma, which takes readers through several actionable steps to masterminding a company’s digital transformation.

When it comes to business leaders themselves, the part-time Executive MBA HSG (German-speaking program) and the International MBA HSG (English-speaking program) at the University of St Gallen both offer a unique executive education experience in the area of general management. 

The programs are built on the integrative St Gallen Management Model which sees participants engage in rigorous academic work, with practical relevance, to drive change in their organizations.

Often, at the forefront of these students’ minds is digital transformation. How should you act? What mindset do you need? How can you succeed as a manager?

Here’s six ways business leaders can succeed in the digital age and mastermind a successful digital transformation:

1. Lead authentically in both the core business and the new digital business

If you’re leading a digital transformation, you need to internalize the reality of having to lead authentically in both worlds. You need to act as ambassador for either of the businesses vis-à-vis the respective other. That means you need to build bridges, form connections, get buy-in from employees on both teams. And you need to bust the myth that the traditional business is your boring 71-year-old aunt while your digital business is your good-looking gym instructor. Your aunt and your gym instructor are equally important, and you need to convey that message.

2. Act as a sparring partner

No more Mr. Bad Guy! Enter Mr. Nice Guy. Gone are the days of authoritative instructions from executives and passive submission by subordinates. What evolves in a digital transformation setting is a dialog between the two. Regular one-on-one feedback sessions are a key tool in facilitating that dialog. Your team members should feel free to bring up the topics that matter to them and draw in their superiors where they see fit. You then should act as coach, giving advice where helpful and needed. 

3. Inspire and empower employees 

To act like an entrepreneur. To think like an owner. To take initiative. To radically innovate. You need to be willing to relinquish control and to motivate your team members to accept the challenge of venturing outside of their comfort zones. Empowering your employees means creating a safe space for them to experiment and pursue their own hunches, to make decisions without prior approval, to demonstrate ownership. In fact, you need to turn your teams into mini entrepreneurial squads, so your own job moves away from managing the business and more towards managing people.

4. Promote a culture of smart failure, rather than a culture of perfectionism 

Promoting intelligent failures is an attitude that digital transformation leaders need to internalize if they want to reap maximum digital transformation success. Similarly, digital transformation talent needs to have the courage to take calculated risks and be open to failing every once in a while, and to not have their spirits be broken as a result of failure. This means that both leaders and people need to be willing to let ideas go.

5. Instill a lifelong learning culture

Technology is an inherently restless field. Restless in that it advances so fast that believing you can indefinitely rely on established standards is equivalent to digging your own grave. Adaptability is key – being open to (and prepared for) change will set your organization up for success in the face of changing technological realities. Only by being willing to depart from historically established norms do leaders even qualify to lead the digital transformation change.

6. Create an agile organization 

An agile organization relies on team-based work, with the teams having end-to-end accountability for their assigned projects and being subject to minimal hierarchical burden. They are thus able to act as speedboats, not bogged down by corporate bureaucracies. Together, the speedboats form a network – rather than a hierarchy – of teams. These teams are (cross-functionally) mixed teams, consisting of people with many different backgrounds. This is to boost diversity of thought and to prevent silos. Leaders giving guidance supersede managers giving detailed instructions, leaving much autonomy to teams and thus enabling quick changes and flexible action.

This article was written in collaboration with the authors of the book The Digital Transformer’s Dilemma: Karolin Frankenberger, Hannah Mayer, Andreas Reiter, and Markus Schmidt. This article is sponsored by the University of St Gallen.