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The CEO as Chief Mediator and Motivator

Energizing Digital Transformation (2/5)

by Brigitte Lammers, Mark D. Krymalowski | September 16, 2016

In many organizations digital transformation is already part of everyday life. Yet for employees this "change" isn't just something that takes a lot of getting used to – it's something that can often feel threatening, too. Which makes it all the more important for organizations to have a leader who can motivate and inspire, explaining digitization effectively and steering the process.

Transformation often begins with opposition – rigid structures versus a new flexibility and participation; zero-error plan fulfilment versus a willingness to take risks – as the far-reaching changes proposed give rise to resistance. If the new focus on digital goals is to be successful, then familiar processes, hierarchical structures and old leadership cultures and mindsets must often be turned on their heads. In other words, a whole new corporate culture is required.

In this situation the CEO needs to be the chief mediator of digital transformation. Their role is to motivate the motivators, tear down walls, reconcile old and new schools of thought, build bridges, overcome fears, bring people of very different mindsets together and get them onside for the new course of action. But the CEO’s personality and arguments alone won’t do the job. Ultimately the CEO needs to shape the change process by gathering the best and most motivated talents around their banner and building the necessary teams – regardless of traditional hierarchies. Drastic measures may be necessary.

The CEO is a key figure in this radical transformation process – yet at the same time their job is “merely” to get the ball rolling. The idea is that this then unleashes a spirit of change that flows through the entire organization – something for which a Chief Digital Officer, for example, or a “normal” board member, cannot bear sole responsibility.

As the catalyst of the process and its figurehead for a workforce that will frequently be seeking guidance, the CEO faces a two-fold challenge:

  • communicating a clear strategic direction more intensively than ever across the organization, while listening to and mediating people’s concerns with empathy and understanding;
  • being approachable and living a culture in which CEO communications are not a one-way street but a dialog, on equal terms, with all employees. Intelligent use of modern communication tools (podcasts, Slack, Yammer, Twitter) can be helpful.

In this way the CEO creates spaces for thought and action, securing these spaces against resistance from within the organization. It is in these spaces that the company’s digital transformation takes shape. And operating in these spaces are people who know what they're talking about – and act accordingly.

Impulses for the digital transformation: