The lonely life of the Digital Transitional executive


They say it’s tough at the top. For a particular group of executives – the executive digital transitional – the rapidly evolving digital landscape is making life especially isolating and increasingly uncertain. As the noise around digital transformation increases, the corporate digital fluency of CEOs, senior executives and even board members is coming under greater and greater scrutiny.

CEOs, once happy to relegate anything “digital” to their digital or IT director, are now being expected to take back the wheel – to become the active architect of their company’s direction in an increasingly digital world.

To make matters worse, this expectation is coming from multiple directions at once.

As the employment profile within your enterprise shifts to include more and more digital natives, your People & Culture teams will be telling you that your Gen Y and Millennials expect the CEO and executive team to be able to clearly articulate and justify the digital direction of the business.

The Board will be expecting you to be able to scrutinise, filter and contextualise your IT and digital business cases before they get to the board – and explain how each investment fits into your vision for a business that is probably both physical and digital.

At the same time, everyone has a different idea of what a digital strategy is and what it should include – but no-one is prepared to put theirs on the block and define it.

Meanwhile, fuelled by the sales numbers of software vendors and hundreds of digital blogs that furiously guzzle their own bathwater, ambitious digital natives continue to advocate a scorched earth philosophy that maintains that 30-40 years of commercial experience has no value because “digital changes everything”. Under this mindset, due diligence and pragmatism can be painted as old-school thinking or simply (and more corrosively) as a general unwillingness to change.

Established CEOs with the protection of digital creds can bat this off for the simplistic naivety that it is. But what happens to the executive – the executive digital transitional – who doesn’t have the corporate digital fluency that underpins these expectations?

What defines an executive digital transitional?

If you were born between 1955 and 1974 and didn’t make an early leap into the emerging digital sector, there is a good chance that you are part of this hidden executive cohort.

Executive digital transitionals form the core of a generation of executives who built and led the thriving businesses and enterprises from which we all benefit. They are the custodians of 30 or more years of Australian corporate experience. However, in an accident of timing, this group just missed the cresting of the digital wave and fall in the gap between the pre-digital executive and the digital native. The significance of this gap has grown with the increasing prominence of digital in recent years resulting in specific and confronting challenges for this cohort.

If this sounds familiar, you are probably already aware of the difficulties involved in trying to build the necessary level of corporate digital fluency.

Who do you call?

You can’t talk to your staff for fear of compromising your authority. Even if you could, the view is myopic. Ask your marketing team and you get a marketing perspective. Ask your IT team and you get a systems answer. It’s like a digital IKEA kit without the instructions; you can see how all the bits work but struggle to visualise how it should all look when assembled – or understand why you would bother to assemble it in the first place.

Ask your kids and you risk getting the opinion of a consumer masquerading as strategy. Familiarity does not necessarily breed insight. It is important to remember that on its own, being a regular Facebook user is no more likely to make you a digital strategist than driving a car is likely to make you Henry Ford.

This is why the “we just need to get some young people working here” approach often leads to the wrong answers.

Sure, there are your external strategy providers – but you run the same risk. More and more of these are now also solutions providers or software vendors which presents other complications.

It helps to have an objective point of reference for this sort of thing, but the real answer lies in developing the executive digital fluency needed to add a digital string to your already formidable management bow.

It’s not hard and it’s not the exclusive domain of the young.

The reasons why kids are good with digital is often attributed to age. Consider how your kids learn about social media and it becomes clearer that it has less to do with age, and more to do with three fundamental factors; learning in a low-stakes, high-trust environment, self-belief in a successful outcome, and a willingness to give things a go.

The same applies to understanding the digital landscape. It’s not that difficult – but it is that important.

Being a digital transitional is tough – and perilous. But the real peril is to the broader business community. If experience and digital fluency become an either/or decision we risk robbing our businesses of the benefit of CEOs and executives with a wealth of experience and corporate knowledge – and the digital fluency to empower that experience. In the process we risk losing our corporate memory and the experience that continues to underpin business innovation – digital or otherwise.

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