Leadership: a “digital” transformation should be called transformation

A “digital” transformation should just be called a transformation and it’s a question of leadership. Full stop. Such is the conclusion of my interview with my friend Minter Dial who talked to me from London about his new book, “You Lead, How Being Yourself Makes You a Better Leader”. In this new opus, he draws a parallel between what he saw during 9/11 and the current COVID-19 pandemic. According to him, nothing will be like ever before and there is a need for a radically new leadership. This applies to digital as well, and Minter had a few harsh words for CDOs and digital transformations which should be, well… transformations. Here is what he told me.

Leadership: a transformation needs to be called transformation, not digital transformation

Leadership: a transformation needs to be called transformation, not digital transformation
Leadership: a transformation needs to be called transformation, not digital transformation

Onto something new in the way we operate in business

I wanted to make a point at the very beginning that in my view, we are onto something new in the way that we need to operate in business.

Sometimes we might not realise the need to change before we are faced with something unexpected

My observation has been that in order for us to get on the programme and really figure out what was important in the way we ought to lead and run business, we needed to have some kind of life-changing experience. Mine was 9/11, and I draw a parallel between 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic because both of them are linked by one very important topic, which is death, albeit at a different level and in different ways.

leadership digital transformation

But they do bring life into the question because by its nature, we’re looking at death, and more broadly and in philosophical terms, I have seen from my little vantage point a lot of other massively interesting similarities, which aren’t necessarily positive.

The first is that these two events came out of the blue for most of us, we weren’t prepared and secondly, it was an invisible enemy, whether it was the ideology or the virus.

The third point was that your neighbour could become your enemy, so anyone on the street is potentially the end of your road.

Obviously, this is pulling big generalisations, but it does have that sort of nature seeping into our daily lives, whereby you look at somebody differently as you walk down the street. Certainly, that’s what happened back in 2001, and for many of us who’ve lived through terrorist attacks have now got this feeling of everybody carrying the virus, everyone’s going out to get me.

I fundamentally believe that this is going to last, because it is part of a bigger movement

The next thing is that we have a media narrative that is kind of monolithic and you’re not allowed to talk differently than the main narrative. This happened with regards to 9/11, terrorism and so on. It’s either you’re a friend or an enemy, a la Bush.

In this situation now, it’s like you have to kowtow and obey the laws, you have to listen to what the government says, whatever country you’re in. The media have played into that, and as a result, based on fear, are issues of security, whether it’s a terrorist attack or health security.

Our privacy and freedom have been changed for the sake of protecting us. I think ultimately, we have come across the challenge which is we’re no longer allowed to accept or want to accept any death, though it’s such an obvious reality.

We are so conscious about our lives that we can’t accept death; any topic of death is enough to feel a sense of fear and drives us to listen to a unilateral type of narrative from the media. I am not talking about some big conspiracy, I just think it’s sort of the way society interplaying with media and government is leading us down a longer path.

Owing to these life changing experiences, it is time for a radically new way of thinking and leading

Fundamentally, a lot of the things I have talked about in the book were already written before the pandemic.

What I feel the pandemic has done is sort of make us realise and become more aware of the need for a radical change in the way we operate. Let’s say that before the pandemic, typical numbers looked somewhat like 70 percent of employees were not engaged with their work.

During the pandemic that didn’t get any better, and people are now deeply considering why on earth am I spending my precious time in the small life that is left just to sell some more widgets?

What we need is to lean into this and do things at work that are distinctly more meaningful at a more personal level than just dealing with performance, productivity, efficiency, getting the numbers in, which is what we were so programmed to do and taught to do at business schools

But now what we need to think about is the stuff that you and I are living on: how we interact, friendships, relationships, trust, emotions and all the other gooey stuff that we can’t put into numbers. We can’t measure it, all the engineer minds that we like to be. It’s making us feel very uncomfortable because you can’t measure love or empathy any more than you can measure purpose and trust.

This life-changing experience implies doing something other than merely selling widgets and instead of leading, leaders should rethink the way that businesses work and what the objective of business is.

leadership transformation digitale One point is you can sell widgets and have purpose, or you can sell widgets and just be hungry for profitability and revenues. Your widgets, what do they do? Well, they hold up an edifice, the building where people live and work. So you’re making the world go round by making your widgets.

At the end of the day, this plays into our ability to run business and I have a conviction, which is I kind of believe we need to continue to progress. If we’re not progressing, then the issue is the shareholder, and right now, I don’t see many shareholders who are interested in trading water with their money, whether it’s inflation that pushes us to always want more or something else. I think it’s more of a human nature story. In any event, we haven’t got the shareholders, the private equity and VC folks on board yet with this idea of we don’t need to make money.

I could nuance it by saying I think we need to sell more value, maybe not more widgets. I mean, there is an issue of consumer society and pollution and over buying everything. If we could focus more on the value we were providing, not just in the product, but for society or community outside of the company as well, in other words, the bigger purpose. I feel we should do a lot more of that, and business can be a force for change, all the while being profitable and making more money.

What do these life-changing events teach us about digital transformation?

As far as the pandemic is concerned, I think it is a more relevant crisis compared to 9/11, because digital transformation was not a topic back then. The pandemic has shown us that we can do it a lot faster, a lot better than we were thinking before, when it was something like almost a luxury for some companies. It was really difficult to do that kind of stuff. Now all of a sudden, we can do e-commerce and a lot more. Afterall, we need to do a lot more. It has opened up our eyes about how important it was to get with the programme. For those who are not able to really manage the transformation, I think the issue with them is that they don’t know where they’re going in the first place.

One of the big parts of this radical idea is that we need to lean into the sense of what we are doing and not just to have a purpose for the company for the sake of it, but a purpose that makes sense with who I am and who I want to be as an individual. When I am trying to get the numbers and do the transformation for a company, even if it’s a great company, does it really resonate with me? Is it meaningful for me at a personal level? Is it going to make me feel more fulfilled such that when I get to my death, I can say, “God, I really was part of a great movement that helped define who I was, I contributed to this and I made the world a better place until we got that.” Before we figure that out, we are going to have a lot of headless chickens running around.

A lot of people are trying to find what the objective is all about. Businesses are trying to digitise, but they don’t quite know what to do and for what purpose, so they start mixing technical stuff with non-technical stuff and they don’t know where to start.

If you don’t have a leading light, a purpose and then a strategy that links to that purpose, it all becomes kind of irrelevant. Of course, there are things like ‘this is a really interesting project and I can make sense out of it’. But is it really going to contribute to the strategy and is the strategy well aligned with some bigger purpose?

That’s the ideal right now I think, because everybody’s sort of being led by fear, and there’s a lot to be fearful about. Notwithstanding the virus, I think we have to worry deeply about how the economies are going to be after all the subsidies run out and we see all the debt that each of these countries have put on themselves. There’s going to be a lot of bills to be paid in the coming years, and I believe economically we’re in for a very tough ride. I am also worried about how media and democracy will evolve.

Going through the book, there’s a schematic about ‘climbing the digital mountain. Tell us more about it.

I have climbed a few tall mountains and it always struck me what was the path that we’re going to take. The idea of the digital mountain is that it is a big thing to scale, and certainly if you’re not equipped to do it, you have to think what equipment you need and then which path you’re going to take. Who are your Sherpas and your teammates that are going to take you up? Then, there are things you have to deal with which are unexpected, like the weather. These come out and change the course of where you’re going and how long it will take. The analogy is for the path you’re going to take up this mountain from the plethora of choices you have.

Depending on where you start and then up you go, you need to figure out the number of steps per day and the equipment to take. Should you carry all of it or just the stuff that you can because you’re only capable of carrying so much?

So, for the digital mountain, you need to go up with a certain amount of equipment. You have to choose the right technologies to achieve your strategy. You have to have a mix of talent that’s able to deal with this technology

You have to have the right talent to figure it out. Then you need to have this mindset which says that pretty much after every boulder that you go around, you might have some unexpected encounter, which could be a cyber-attack, an issue with the infrastructure, your cloud falls apart or any number of things that can come out around the corner. You need to be in a constant learning mode as you’re going around, and that’s a mindset issue.

Tackling the digital mountain is this idea that if you have a strong strategy, it’s going to help you find your path up the mountain because you need to put everything at the service of that strategy. The funny thing is that so many companies think they have a strategy, but it’s either poorly understood or not well shared throughout the organisation. This means that people are going to be at loggerheads, different departments fighting one another, spending resources without utility because they’re not at the service of the strategy. That’s how I tried to depict the digital mountain.

Talking about this mindset, a few years ago we had these wonderful people called CDOs, who were there to instill the mindset within businesses. Didn’t it work?

It became so apparent to me back in my days when I was working at L’Oreal and we thought of empowering sustainable development, save the planet kind of thing. How it worked out was that we had to identify somebody who’s pretty green, likes to hug trees, though he has zero credibility within the organization by the way, and we’re going to make him the chief of sustainable development. He went running around, trying to save electricity by turning off lights because nobody else is taking it on board.

They don’t take it seriously. It’s just for this department, this man. The same goes for diversity and inclusion. We have to name the one black person to be head of diversity, as if that’s the way that you’re going to embed diversity and inclusion within your organisation. The same is true for digital, because like other stuff, it touches everything.

Today, having a CDO seems to be completely backwards

It needs to be everybody’s business, and just like a lot of these mindset ideas, the CEO needs to be the chief in each of these capacities.

At the end of the day, you can have expertise and there is a need for it. I understand why these CDOs exist, it’s because they’re trying to share best practices and unify purchasing within digital platforms. Yet, it just seems that ultimately it needs to be the responsibility of everybody to be digital. Everyone should understand how digital is part of everything and the way it impacts their business, their side of what they’re doing, whether it’s logistics, finance, sales, or marketing.

A transformation needs to be called transformation, not digital transformation

The idea of the CDO is “dépassé” for me, as they say in French.

The book talks more along the same lines and it is available on Amazon and other platforms too. There is one called Bookshop.org in the United States, which is designed to help independent bookshops get beyond digital and it’s coming to Britain in 2021.

Yann Gourvennec
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