Blog · 09 Aug 2021

The role of servant leadership in digital transformation

Why an effective leadership strategy is central to a successful digital transformation, and how to ensure seamless collaboration at all levels.

Joris van Oers
Managing Director Global, Business

In our Leading lights boardroom programme, organised in conjunction with CIO Magazine, our customers recently debated on why digital transformations often fail.

It’s clear that organisational culture needs to keep up with the accelerating fusion of digital and technology but, every year I experience many digital transformations at top level, and I can definitely see blind spots. It’s therefore common for digital transformations to fail, or not go to plan. Often the reasons behind failure come down to leadership style and the way we collaborate – human dynamics is at the heart of any digital transformation after all. In this blog post, I cover the common issues that our customer community runs into and how to avoid them:

Planning and direction

Leaders don’t always realise that their employees may perceive new ways of working and collaborating as a threat. This is why a transformation should always start with an inventory of perceived threats and an understanding of how they could impact the business.

Employees can also have an ‘engineering mentality’ - an aversion to principles such as fail fast, and they may pay less attention to the business value of new solutions. Leaders should take them on their journey, always explaining the reasons behind their decisions and the benefits for the business. It’s also essential to have a well-planned technology roadmap, so that leaders can continue to steer amidst all the struggles with a constant eye on the ball: the intended business results.

IT governance and transformation

The role of an IT organisation is a major factor in digital transformation. It’s not uncommon for a company to already have a rich product range of innovative digital services such as apps and websites. However, these services don’t always scale well, making transformation complex. To support your digital transformation, IT needs to be given the priority it deserves in the boardroom, and decisions over IT infrastructure must be made carefully and by the right people.

Having clear guidelines and policies for IT is critical as teams or individuals can make the wrong decisions without proper IT expertise and guidance, potentially costing the business money or compromising security. As in many companies, IT organisation is usually made up of a business layer, facilitated by data, enterprise resource planning, and infrastructure layers on which parts of the business can develop their solutions. Certain guidelines need to be followed at all levels. In these cases, IT should use a framework for their governance, but it’s important to remember that the framework should be as light as possible to ensure flexibility.

Clear communication

Another key element in digital transformation is human dynamics. It’s important to be open and clear with colleagues from the start about everyone’s responsibilities and flag any potential issues. You do not want the wrong decisions on how to develop IT functionality being made by certain individuals without involving the rest of the business. To ensure smooth collaboration, consider organising a series of workshops to help decide how best to manage IT governance.

It could be that an agile approach works best when it comes to IT organisation. Specifically cutting out a management layer and assigning certain projects to teams can be efficient and effective. The idea of servant leadership, so facilitating teams and giving them more control and responsibility, is often met with great hesitation. For many of today’s digital leaders, it is not easy to let go of decision making, to let the business take the role of product owner, and to lead the teams from a distance. However, sharing responsibility in this way can be a powerful tool to help facilitate digital transformation. It is a balancing act between speed, agility, and scalability and there is still much to learn.

Driving success

Planning and guidance are the keys to success, so a comprehensive roadmap is helpful. The role of IT governance is also becoming increasingly important to steer transformation, and some organisations are now implementing a framework to support with this. The real drivers behind your digital transformation though will be your people, so remember to be inclusive and collaborative, and above all be honest and clear about responsibilities and roles.