Getting it Right on Digital Transformation

Choosing the best leader from the best available

In this article, Mentor CEO David Hilliard identifies the ideal characteristics for successful transformational leadership.

You don’t see many case studies on successful digital transformations

A client asked me recently why so many digital transformation programs went sideways.

She said, “you would imagine that with our collective skill, talent and flair, we could get these programs right!”

You don’t hear many companies shouting about their transformation successes, do you? I couldn’t find a successful case study anywhere.

This may help to explain why the success rate is an undistinguished 22%.  There is a cascade of reasons why digital transformations nosedive.

But one factor shines through like a beacon.

Leadership failures.

Most transformation leaders are appointed because they are “available.”

The challenges posed by a digital transformation program are exceptionally tough – like a climbing expedition to Mount Everest.

Each expedition flirts with oxygen debt above 8000 metres in the “Death Zone.” Lives can be lost, and that’s why success demands meticulous attention to detail and extraordinary levels of preparation. The potential failure costs are too shocking to comprehend.

Mount Everest expedition leaders are outstanding people with deep experience from many successful ventures.  

In other words, they are proven in their field.

On the other hand, most transformation program directors learn on the job. Many are talented, but it would be rare for any of them to have run a transformation program before. Although some may have run smaller projects.

They may be proven in their specialist or functional fields, but not in executing complex business-critical programs.

There will always be exceptions, yet the truth is: most transformation leaders are appointed because they are “available.”  Some companies appoint a transformation director, allowing them to retain full responsibility for their functional job.

I know of one company where they had three transformation directors in under three years. None had a background in transformation, and none turned out to be fit for the job.  How’s that for team selection and planning! 

In truth, there is never much of a “search” for the best available person.  The selected candidate is usually a convenient choice. Someone who may get on with the CEO – but can’t do the job.

Leadership choice should not be a matter of convenience.

The ideal transformation program leader

Anyone who hasn’t run a transformation before is bound to drop a few clangers.  But the cost of these mistakes could be sidestepped completely by appointing a more experienced transformation leader.

Digital business transformations are big, ambitious, complex and volatile. Invariably, they demand massive changes to business models, processes, technology, multiple domains and company cultures.

Increasingly they are also dependent on contributions from at least two – and possibly more – major suppliers. 

So, what would an ideal candidate look like? 

First, there is no substitute for hard-edged experience.  It seems obvious, but many businesses skate over this.

You’ll definitely need an experienced executive who has successfully run large-scale programs before – and been fully accountable for the business results.

You need someone who can easily provide enough oxygen for the team to survive the ascent. They should build a compelling vision for the change, align people behind that vision – and draw together a fully integrated plan to get it done.

Fewer digital transformation programs would go sideways if businesses sidestepped execution incest. By that, I mean copying what most other businesses do to get second-rate transformation results or worse.

Instead, companies should invest more time in appointing leaders with relevant experience to actually “do” these jobs rather than selecting people who are “available” – but hopelessly mismatched against the role.

A few years ago, one CEO told me that one of his top executives was “too strategic” and another had “no operational experience”. And that’s why his transformation had stalled so badly.

But these executives were “available” although they departed soon afterwards.

Too many companies make “convenient but careless” decisions about leadership on transformation programs – believing they were doing the right thing at the time. 

Yet, as their transformation story unfolds, they quickly discover they have no option but to make changes – or watch their transformation program slide effortlessly down the chute.  

You’ll almost certainly need external help

Unless you are fortunate enough to have a proven winner in your midst, many CEOs feel forced to choose less-than-ideal people to lead transformation programs. The candidates available may be very good people but they just haven’t previously done a transformation of any scale.

Rather than compromise the program’s success before it gets off the ground, it’s important to admit this and bring in external help to plug the experience and knowledge gaps.

And even having made this decision, getting the right type of external help from people with a demonstrable track record in transformation program execution is vital.

If you needed life-saving heart surgery, what advice would you give yourself? That’s right. You’d choose a first-rate surgeon with an impeccable track record in treating your specific condition, wouldn’t you?

About the author

David Hilliard is the Chief Executive Officer of Mentor Europe – Business-Critical program execution experts.