Overcoming digital difficulty #4: Aliens in the C-suite

“We meet aliens everyday who have something to give us. They in come in the form of people with different opinions” (William Shatner). Digital natives drive the front-line of digital transformation, but the senior executives leading them are often from a generation of ‘digital aliens’. Aliens in the C-suite can make digital transformation really difficult, unless the right actions are taken. This is the 4th post in a series building on 10 reasons why digital transformations are difficult. So what are the right actions? Here are a few that seem to work:

  • Celebrate diversity. It’s not uncommon for digital natives to consider their leaders ‘out of touch’. An executive with a long and successful career managing retail stores (for example) is unlikely to become an expert in digital sales overnight. Nevertheless these leaders have much to bring to the party, such as an intuitive understanding of the customer and deep experience driving change in the organisation. Digital throws up some tough questions, which require a diverse set of minds to resolve. 
  • Develop a common language. Meetings where half the room is talking business jargon whilst the other half is talking technology jargon are all-too-common. Digital natives need to learn how to communicate with digital aliens and vice-versa. This requires frequent, purposeful interaction, but also an environment which supports learning. Admissions of ‘I don’t understand that’ should be encouraged.
  • Promote digital natives to the C-suite. Many firms have hired senior technology figures into the C-suite, for example into Chief Digital Officer roles. It’s not an easy move to pull off as the new arrivals often lack sector-specific experience. Promoting high-potential internal natives can be more effective. Often these candidates are seen as lacking the business experience to thrive in the C-suite. But the C-suite needs them more than they need the C-suite. 
  • Empower the natives. Enlightened ‘aliens’ realise the limits of their experience and give ‘natives’ the freedom to deliver great digital outcomes. This is harder than it sounds. True empowerment requires deep investment in upfront alignment (e.g., to agree KPIs), frequent joint problem-solving, and high trust on both sides. 

In summary then, digital aliens can be an asset not a liability, but only if natives and aliens work well together. 

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