Disruption: trending near you.
If your organisation hasn’t been disrupted, be alert, soon it will be. That’s the reality of the digital economy. It requires businesses to continually respond to threats of new technologies and agile digital native companies. It means transforming how they work - and not just once. Organisations need to embed this ability to change into their DNA, so they can continually respond and become digitally sustainable. In this article, we explore what this means for leadership.


Just 15 years ago, change was something that disturbed long periods of calm. Now, you could drop into any organisation, in any sector, anywhere in the world, and the chances are you’ll find some kind of change underway. The digital revolution has altered the rules of doing business. It has made disruption, innovation and change, the norm. The problem is that most traditional businesses are not built to respond to changes this fast and, in the digital economy, companies that don’t keep up with the pace of change, don’t last. Take for example the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company. Fifty years ago, they were in the market for around 75 years; today, it’s less than 15 years. Estimates predict that 50 percent of the S&P 500 will be replaced over the next decade. The harsh reality is that in the fast-moving new world, organisations cannot endure without imbedding this ability to change into their DNA.

In our new report, Rebuild to Last: The journey to Digital Sustainability , we refer to this ability to continually respond to change as digital sustainability and identify the critical organisational and leadership capabilities to become digitally sustainable. We also provide a roadmap to success. The report highlights that one of the essential elements in the journey to digital sustainability is having leaders that can drive real change.

Digital sustainability must be owned, inspired, and driven, by leaders at the very top of the organisation – then amplified down through the senior management tiers. It can’t be delegated to an individual role. Leaders are both the catalyst for the journey, and the glue that holds the people together during it. They must design the journey, steer the business through it, inspire the workforce, and build trust so that people feel that they can think differently, innovate, fail from time to time, and still be supported.

Digital sustainability must be driven by leaders at the very top then amplified down. Click To Tweet

The big hurdle

One of our comprehensive global studies of business leaders revealed that delivering strategic change is the top priority for most organisations but driving the type of strategic change that is needed today is challenging. Only 17 percent of the participating companies felt confident that they have the right leadership in place to deliver these changes.

Experience of driving change is difficult enough to find; but leaders who can spearhead the transformation for digital are extremely rare indeed. Traditionally, leaders have been developed to drive financial performance and operational excellence and while these capabilities will always be important, organisations now realise they need leaders who can effectively respond to constantly evolving business opportunities and threats, and chart a path to sustainable growth. Transforming for digital requires a different set of skills than those required for traditional business management.

It’s tempting to assume that the answer to finding the right leaders will lie in paying a premium to hire talent from pure-play digital businesses. Leaders from titans, such as Amazon and Google, should not automatically be considered as standouts to lead digital transformations elsewhere. Korn Ferry research suggests that leaders of such firms – ‘born digital’ leaders–can be too narrowly specialised and often lack management experience and leadership skills; these take time and willingness to develop.

Transforming for digital does demand digital expertise, agility, the ability to make connections, a passion for ideas and the ability to navigate unknown situations. But, at the same time, it requires the knowledge and experience to inspire and drive transformation in a traditional setting. As such, the solution may instead lie in a hybrid approach: developing from within and recruiting from traditional businesses that are further along their transformation journeys.

The essence of this strategy lies in identifying digitally ready, in-house talent (some found in surprising places) capable of taking active roles in the transformation. This existing talent possesses skills such as navigating the organisation, building relationship networks, and influencing others; these are crucial to fostering buy-in of digitisation initiatives. To fill expertise gaps, organisations can strategically recruit external talent with the required traits and capabilities.

Digitally ready talent

Talent that’s ready to go digital can be found in every company today. Some of these leaders may have expertise already in digital strategies and applications; others may have strong interests in them. They may vary in their readiness, some immediately capable of helping to lead a digital transformation, and others getting involved in the near term.

Those who are digitally ready thrive in a ‘test and learn’ environment with quick cycles of trial and error. They are action oriented and open to new ideas. They’re curious and possess learning agility, a differentiator that we define as the willingness and ability to take on new and different challenges while applying lessons learned to new experiences.

Learning agility, the key to digital sustainability

In an increasingly complex world, leaders routinely tackle new challenges in pursuit of high performance. An ability to identify underlying patterns and apply thinking based on frameworks developed through experience, is essential. Digital sustainability, requires learning agile talent —talent who can learn quickly and react to the unexpected. This highly desirable trait includes:

  • Mental agility: critical thinking skills and comfort with complexity, scrutinising problems, and making fresh connections; they must be able to make these understandable to others.
  • Change agility: the ability to experiment and deal with the discomfort of change, with a passion for ideas and a high interest in continual development.
  • People agility: being open-minded toward others, enjoying interaction with diverse groups, bringing out the best in others.
  • Results agility: delivering results in tough situations, responding to challenge, inspiring others to achieve more than they thought possible.
  • Self-awareness: being reflective, understanding strengths and weaknesses, seeking feedback and personal insight.

To complement their digital readiness, internal leaders may need development in leadership skills, exposure to more digital experiences, a broader vision, and capabilities to achieve results through others. Most importantly, they need to experience an environment that supports this development.

Fail Fast?

There’s a catch in all of this though. Traditional organisations are built around core processes designed to reduce risk and improve reliability. Most senior leaders have grown up in environments where precision matters and getting things right first time, every time is a key to success. In this brave new digital world failing fast has become the new mantra, but that’s a huge leap for many organisations that are naturally resistant to change. Digital readiness doesn’t translate into digital sustainability without carefully creating an environment which encourages experimentation.

Senior leaders have grown up in environments where getting things right first time is a key to success. Click To Tweet

Many of our clients get this and have initiated programs of work to create just that environment. Labs, hubs and incubators have replaced war rooms as organisations wrestle with the creative demands of change and transformation. Engaging in this space helps leaders develop skills in the divergent processes of exploration and the convergent techniques of solutioning. More importantly, it gives them confidence to think and act in new ways.

Where to start?

The first step to securing the right leaders is to understand the capabilities, traits, drivers, experience, and knowledge the organisation will require. As we’ve found in our work with clients, organisations can increase their “digital transformation capacity” by identifying and developing ‘digital’ talent profiles. Once the organisation has a clear understanding of its internal capabilities as well as the gaps between where it is now and where it wants to be, it can take an intelligent, focused approach to finding the right leaders that are critical to digital success.

Identifying and developing digitally ready talent will require investment but the returns in terms of engagement and customer responsiveness far outweigh the cost.

Read our latest report Rebuilt to last: The journey to digital sustainability to learn about the leadership and organisational capabilities your company needs to become digitally sustainable, and how to embed them in your business

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About the contributor

Stephen Johnston is a Senior Client Partner for Korn Ferry Advisory, Australia. He possesses extensive experience in succession planning, leadership assessment and development, and executive coaching. He joined Korn Ferry in early 2006, after holding a number of senior management positions in the media/entertainment and FMCG sectors. His most recent position was CEO for Video Ezy Australasia, prior to which he spent seven years with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment initially as retail sales director, then managing director.

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