New mandates need new leadership thinking

March 20, 2021 6:40 AM

Businesses are getting fundamentally reimagined in the age of digital transformation. The thinking that had served corporate leadership hitherto may not be sufficient going forward

Company leaders must continue to reimagine ways to achieve such creative collaboration even when employees are not working from company offices all the time.Company leaders must continue to reimagine ways to achieve such creative collaboration even when employees are not working from company offices all the time.

By Krishnan Ramanujam

Every large global company faces several mandates, including rethinking strategic opportunities in terms of cross-industry digital ecosystems, using their core purpose for customers to hone that strategy, increasing the productivity and the loyalty of at-home workers, and welcoming new roles in the C-suite.

These mandates will challenge the longstanding attitudes and beliefs of many executives. They may appear especially implausible to those who have carved out highly successful careers and yet who now find themselves in businesses that are about to be transformed by the digital revolution. But as George Bernard Shaw once said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.

It’s natural to view leadership-mindset as part of the “soft” and less-essential work of strategic transformation. The “hard” and fundamental work, this thinking goes, is developing the strategy itself. Of course, a clear and sound strategy is crucial. However, the individual mind-shifts and group dynamics necessary for a leadership team to create a winning strategy and fully get it are just as vital.

There is a need to use digital ecosystems rather than the age-old confines of an industry’s boundaries to identify business opportunities and threats. That, in turn, demands leaders to abandon long-held beliefs about such matters as whether to work with competitors, who the biggest competitors are and will be, how much business partners can be trusted and what customers value most. This is especially important in industries where the core products can be entirely digital. Perhaps the most radical mindset change required to think in ecosystem terms is using the lens of how customers accomplish their end-to-end process rather than the lens of how a company has historically solved one piece of that process.

Another emerging challenge is managing a large remote workforce. This is being done for health and safety reasons today—to reduce the chances of employees falling victim to COVID-19. But, for many organisations, allowing employees to work from home will rub up against some leaders’ beliefs that they need to see people working to be assured that they’re working—the old “face time at the office” requirement. Company leaders must continue to reimagine ways to achieve such creative collaboration even when employees are not working from company offices all the time.

C-suite roles will also need reinventing. Leadership team members can get territorial when they’re measured largely on the performance of their business function that they oversee. If new leadership team roles are created—chief digital officer, chief customer experience officer and so on—those new executives could be perceived by the previous C-suite members as competing for budget and assets. A highly successful chief marketing officer could question whether a new chief customer experience officer should report to the CMO or the opposite. And these arguments may not only be territorial; they may be philosophical. In other words, turf battles can be viewpoint battles.

Changing how a leadership team thinks about certain key mandates and how to resolve them can be crucial to creating a sound strategy.
Even if everyone on the top leadership team embraces the company’s strategy at a high level-may not be enough. It’s crucial that the collective mindset of the top team congeal at a deeper level around where the company must go and how to do it.

There are numerous historical examples of leaders of companies and nations who realized the importance of creating a collective mindset around strategic direction. A term that comes to mind for me is “mind-meld.” Fans of the sci-fi TV series Star Trek will know exactly what this means. The Oxford dictionary defines it as “a (supposed) technique for the psychic fusion of two or more minds, permitting unrestricted communication or deep understanding.”

The mind-meld I’m talking about here is the fusion of the thinking of a leadership team on the company’s strategy for this digital decade. Mind-meld will only happen if disparate views are permitted to be fully voiced, respectfully examined, debated rigorously and knitted together coherently.

The leadership team dynamic to create here is one of “What is the truth?” vs. “Why I’m right.” That requires constructive disobedience to be permitted in leadership meetings—in this case, disobedience being about voicing a different opinion. A team with vocal dissenters who nonetheless work productively and respectfully to forge a far-better-thought-through strategy will be elemental to success.

When a leadership team is united on where the organization must go in an-ever complex and digital world, it becomes a powerful force. Against competitors whose executives are not fully in sync or are greatly out of sync, the unified team has a far better chance of winning.

That doesn’t mean they will always agree on the destination and how to get there. In fact, if they’re not debating these issues on an ongoing basis, they aren’t likely holding sufficiently honest conversations.

That, in business and war, can lead to disaster. As Winston Churchill once said, “When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”

The author is President, Business and Technology Services
Tata Consultancy Services

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