The Digital CEO

July 10, 2017

What to consider as a CEO in times of digitalization

In the first post of our “The Digital CEO” series, we discussed the significance of new media in business, society and everyday life. Now, we are plunging in medias res.

Digitalization is happening across all levels. The challenges and opportunities it entails are balancing out, but the speed of change is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. Today, CEOs cannot just watch their organizations transition smoothly into the digital age. Ideally, they are themselves “digital” individuals who proactively communicate their outlooks on and their visions for the organization, keep their fingers on the pulse, as well as enable and encourage a process of accelerated evolution within the organization. Regardless of how familiar or unfamiliar you are with new technologies, as a CEO you need to be a facilitator of change - simply allowing it to happen is not enough.

Two women working on a computer
If you can't keep up, you are falling behind - a CEO has to be a living example of digitalization. Photo © CC0 License

How a CEO supports digitalization:

1. Be proactive

The most successful organizations are agile and receptive to change. They keep an eye on new technologies - not only in their own industry but in all industries. They constantly think about how to harness the potential of these technologies with a view to doing business development or moving into fields today that did not even exist yesterday. If you leave it to startups or the competition to take the first step, it will be too late. One of the rock stars among digital CEOs, Gary Vaynerchuk, has preached this proactive behavior in a provocative manner, using the direct language of the not-so-glamorous New Jersey wine merchant he once was. Nevertheless, his video blog on YouTube is well worth watching.

2. Create order out of chaos

Organizations that are to have a bright future use new technologies, learn from the data that accumulate over time and translate the resulting insights into new customer experiences - before starting all over again. This innovation cycle needs to be properly organized, and in this context the CEO plays a pivotal role. Innovation is no end in itself, and not all new ideas are actually worth implementing. A clear vision and a sense of purpose are the cornerstones of decision making. Considerable pressure notwithstanding, it is important to keep a cool head in assessing what technologies will and will not help the organization accomplish its mission. In an effort to gain some experience in implementing innovation projects and bring in a new culture, many organizations seek external support in addressing this challenge.

3. Think differently - act differently

Digital transformation puts an end to the status quo. Whether it is B2B or B2C, established structures will come under pressure if they fail to deliver a positive customer experience. The competition can turn an entire industry upside down overnight by offering a better customer experience. Think of UBER or Airbnb; they have not invented a new service but redefined the experience of taking a taxi or traveling. Potentially, each and every organization has the know-how to redesign processes in a customer-oriented manner. Create spaces where everything we are accustomed to can and should be questioned. Spaces without taboos when it comes to reimagining processes around the needs and requirements of customers.

Best practices of digitalization

There are countless best-practice examples. People come in all shapes and sizes, and so do modern digital CEOs. Here is a small but fine selection of remarkable national and international CEOs:

John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile USA, is the personification of the digital CEO and the best advertisement for his organization, both internally and externally. With more than 4.2 million followers on Twitter, he also serves his organization as a PR and employee branding machine in his own right.

Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffpost, has 5.4 million followers on LinkedIn. She is one of the business network's thought leaders on women in business and has transformed the media landscape with her startup.

Karl-Thomas Neumann, formerly CEO of Opel, works in an industry that vehemently resists its own transformation. As a digital CEO, he was, nevertheless, impeccably “social,” affording the general public insights into his organization and his day-to-day work as a top-level executive.

Christoph Stadlhuber, CEO of Signa Prime Selection, started a year ago to personally share the innovations brought about by his organization with the digital community. He has well over 1,000 followers on LinkedIn.

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