Success in digital transformation requires executives to lead with empathy, says Shannon Nixon, the CEO and founder of digital transformation consultancy Ko-lab8.

This is in recognition of the importance of cultural change, and the fact that transforming people and processes is often more important than upgrading technology.  “And it requires a clear sense of vision — which isn’t always there, ” she tells Which-50.

“Boards are supposed to take a look at the long term, but in reality, they’re going to take a look at when they’re going to be reporting their finances, or are they going to be paying a dividend out?”

Such short-termism is inhibitory, she says. “To really make a significant change you do need to take more of a long-term view.”

Nixon, who has had executive stints at Microsoft and AWS, also argues that business sponsors need to recognise how important their role is to success, and not to simply consider transformation as a technology issue.

“When we look at transformation, just talking about digital transformation and looking at technology you’re bound to have a low degree of success.”

People and processes and strategy are often more important, and far harder to deliver, she says.

Empathy

“Cultural change is challenging. And that is why you have to lead with empathy.”

She told Which-50 that success involves taking team members through an often uncomfortable journey. “People worry about losing their jobs, and when they are nervous they are not necessarily going to react rationally.

“Their first response is often an emotive instinct, and then [later] the rationality kicks in. So it makes sense when you’re going through something like a big change.” 

And that change will likely be ongoing.

“Digital transformation is not a project.  It’s not something that has an end date. There is always going to be new technology coming out, and new innovations, so it’s a constant evolution.”

At a leadership level, it is important to be able to understand why you are changing and to be able to communicate why that change is necessary.

“Really this is about business transformation. The technology is just the enabler for it.”

Nixon says she will typically meet with the executive leadership (ELT) team, then have a separate meeting with the senior leadership team (SLT). “We’re effectively asking the same questions and we’re going through the same facilitation process with them. But what this highlights is whether everyone is on the same page — do they all agree their customer is the same customer, and do they all understand why they’re doing a transformation program.”

Nixon says the role of Ko-lab8 is to help organisations understand the journey they are on. “What we want to be able to do is work with organisations to understand — OK what is your understanding of this, why are you doing it. And then looking at your business strategy — how can we actually help you get to your endpoint, and is it truly transformative, so that it’s new revenue streams, new business.”

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