How do you lead your team through digital transformation?
  • Tim Payne, Author |
4 min read

As part of Our Digital Future, I was thrilled to host a breakout session on leadership for digital transformation. I was joined by a fantastic panel to explore the challenges leaders face when taking their organisations into the digital future:

  • Pinar Emirdag – Global Head of Digital Client Services and Markets, JP Morgan Chase & Co
  • Eleanor Winton – Director, Foresightfully
  • Michelle Wesson – Ignition Director, KPMG

A unique challenge

We kicked off the discussion by looking at what’s different about leading digital transformation: how does it vary from spearheading other change initiatives?

Pinar outlined how JP Morgan had begun by defining what digital means for the bank. They identified four pillars of digital: data, intelligence, technology and people. “This is what sets digital transformation leadership apart,” she told us, “That’s what’s unique about it: the need to intertwine those four elements.”  

Another differentiating factor is the scope and scale of the work involved in driving transformation across the organisation. “Digital transformation is whatever you want it to be,” Eleanor pointed out. “It’s not a change you make once and it’s done; it’s a never-ending journey.”

We also know that digital transformation can place conflicting pressures on leaders, as they look to achieve their goals against a backdrop of rapid innovation. As Michelle explained, they must decide which digital solutions will deliver their change objectives. But the speed of technological change throws up new options all the time, which offer new capabilities and opportunities. 

Balancing the present and future

While grappling with these challenges, how can leaders maintain ‘business as usual’ (BAU) and push forward with change?

JP Morgan has seen positive results by bringing its BAU and digital teams together as one. Combining their understanding of client needs and digital capabilities has changed everyone’s outlook. “It’s given us all more confidence in the benefits of the transformation we’re trying to achieve,” Pinar enthused. 

Eleanor agreed that integration of this kind is vital: transformation and BAU mustn’t become disconnected. In fact, digital should become BAU; it should be interwoven throughout the enterprise. 

The agility imperative

The discussion then moved onto agility – a crucial capability in the digital era. I was keen to hear about the expectations that fostering agility places on leaders, as it’s something that’s new and unfamiliar to many of them.

The first step is to understand when to use an agile approach – and when not to. Agile won’t work in all situations; it needs to be assessed case by case.

Like digital transformation itself, instilling an agile mindset imposes conflicting aims on leaders.

It requires them to create a culture of experimentation – where it’s OK to fail, learn and quickly move on – which runs counter to what many have been used to. But at the same time, they need to be able to make hard decisions about what to keep going with, and what to put a stop to.

It’s a careful balancing act that leaders need to start putting in to place. The old norms won’t work anymore.

Leading in a hybrid world

In the post-COVID-19 world, a key test for leaders will be supporting teams in hybrid working environments – where some employees remain at home while others come into the office.

To assess this challenge, we asked attendees: what will be the biggest leadership challenge in a hybrid world?

  • Building a strong culture: 38 percent
  • Engagement and wellbeing: 29 percent
  • Collaboration: 17 percent
  • Effective decision-making: 9 percent
  • Performance and productivity: 7 percent

Unsurprisingly, respondents’ top two concerns – culture and wellbeing – reflect the times we’ve been living in.

We know that wellbeing is the primary concern among leaders we work with, as their employees continue to work from home during lockdown. But Michelle underlined that at as restrictions ease, culture will become the main challenge for the next phase of hybrid working.

There was some surprise, however, that collaboration wasn’t higher on the agenda.

Eleanor explained that while at one end of the scale, employees are collaborating via virtual meetings, people will still need to get together to experiment and build things. Leaders will need to know where on that scale the most valuable collaboration happens – and enable that sort of collaboration in hybrid environments.

Performance and productivity may also prove a thornier problem than our poll results suggest.

Going forward, some employees may need to be in the office every day, due to the nature of their role – others never. Most will be somewhere in between. Leaders must recognise that good performance and productivity will look different for different categories of employee; a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.

Similarly, people’s roles when collaborating in hybrid environments may not be obvious. “Who’ll be expected to lead, contribute and participate?” Eleanor asked. 

Pinar agreed that legacy performance management will no longer be suitable. “It’s a completely different way of working. A more entrepreneurial mindset is needed, focused on outcomes and trust.” 

Watch the full session on-demand, as well as the recordings for the other sessions from the event, here.