Part 3 of a 4-part series by Maark CEO and Founder, Michael Colombo. Read Part 1 here.
Between the mayhem and the occasional madness of the past year, business leaders have been asked to confront new challenges. The global pandemic has had an enormous impact on every business. For some, it’s meant rethinking their business model altogether to shore up evaporating revenue. But short-term revenue loss is a mere pixel of an emerging image that’s far more troubling.
For more than a decade, digital transformation has been on the agenda of nearly every company in the world. In that time, industries have been disrupted or outright disappeared, companies have gone bankrupt, and progress for the survivors has been slow. Some companies haven’t even started.
But even in the face of their inevitable obsolescence, many companies simply could not change.
In April, just as the shock of global lockdowns were setting in, Marc Andreessen wrote that “It’s Time to Build.” But what we’ve learned in the time since is that apart from a few notable exceptions, the majority of the business world is incapable of building 21st century solutions. This incompetence has become the long-term crisis exposed by the immediate one. And this inability to deliver meaningful transformation is a far more daunting predicament than short-term revenue loss.
By April the entire developed world had gone purely digital, and yet very few companies were prepared to compete. But how could that be? The mandate to prepare for just such an inevitability had been clear for years. The investments had been made. The metrics established. The stakes—relevancy of the brand, profitability of the business—could not have been higher. But even in the face of their inevitable obsolescence, many companies simply could not change.
Many will chalk this up to the inertia of big business. The overwhelming forces of nature that keep enterprises trudging forward, glacially carving a path to a destination that no one wants to visit. After years of attempting change, IBM, for example, finally gave up on transformation entirely this year, choosing instead to put their legacy business out to pasture while they try to build a more relevant business under a new brand.
They are looking to hire each other—people with similar backgrounds who have spent their careers delaying change in other big companies.
Retreat, for many companies, may be the only viable option. That’s not because their business is unchangeable, but because their leadership is. Changing a company, no matter the size, sounds more complicated than it is. Change can happen quickly with capable leadership. The problem, however, is that the leaders who are capable of delivering transformation, the true digital executives, simply do not yet exist in high enough quantities.
Digital executives—those who have the ability to marshal the resources of the enterprise to deliver strategic design and technology solutions that are competitive at any level—are unicorns. And if an enterprise happens to find one, then they become unicorns amongst a barren of mules. But most companies aren’t even looking for them. They don’t know what to look for. Instead, they are looking to hire each other—people with similar backgrounds who have spent their careers delaying change in other big companies.
It’s not possible to fill a legacy enterprise with these types of people. That’s why retreat may become the best option for many businesses. However, when a company can find a handful of real digital executives, their sole mandate should be to clear the barriers ahead of them. Just get the weight of enterprise mediocrity off of their shoulders. There’s little risk in that. Right now, the risk that businesses face is not in innovating, it’s in smothering what little innovation they’ve got in its cradle.
When a company can find a handful of real digital executives, their sole mandate should be to clear the barriers ahead of them.
Free the digital executives of the morass of corporate decision-making and give them a direct line to the CEO. Surrounding them with soft-skilled bureaucrats will slow them down and weaken innovation. When everyone is given a voice in every decision, they’re also getting a grenade to lob into any situation that threatens their standing or their understanding. Protect the transformation from those who have no meaningful role in delivering it. Be strict. Be honest.
The next generation of business leaders will all be digital executives. It will become extremely rare to ascend to positions of leadership without a mastery of both the soft skills of delegation and the hard skills of participation. But until we reach that point each company will need to get more honest about their current crisis. They will need to see it as a crisis of leadership, one that can be overcome with a commitment to the makers, the doers.
Moving enterprise decision-making away from the talkers, the meeting-schedulers, the mistitled accountants is an easy shift. It’s one of the easiest shifts that a big company can make. All it takes is a commitment to watch change happen instead of standing in its way. Let the one with the life raft bring everyone else to shore.