What is required to be an effective leader in today’s totally disruptive business world?

A discussion and running theme that seems to be on every leadership and executive director’s mind, is ‘what is required to be an effective leader in today’s totally disruptive business world’?

Experts have opined for decades on the reasons behind the spectacular failure rates of strategy execution.
In 2016, it was estimated that 67% of well-formulated strategies failed due to poor execution.
There are many explanations for this abysmal failure rate, but a 10-year longitudinal study on executive leadership conducted by my firm showed one clear reason.
A full 61% of executives told us they were not prepared for the strategic challenges they faced upon being appointed to senior leadership roles.
It’s no surprise, then, that 50%–60% of executives fail within the first 18 months of being promoted or hired.

Becoming a disruptive leader is not a straightforward journey, no matter your background. It requires the embrace of wholesale change, the nurturing of innovative thinking and behavior, and the management of outcomes rather than resources. It requires a personal transformation that many will choose not to make.

Over the past year, we’ve been struck by how many times we’ve heard C-suite leaders use these words, or very similar ones, to describe the strengths they believe are critical to transforming their businesses, and to competing effectively in a disruptive era.

What’s equally striking is how difficult organisations are finding it to embed these qualities and behaviors in their people. That’s because the primary obstacle is invisible: the internal resistance that all human beings experience, often unconsciously, when they’re asked to make a significant change.

Cognitively, it shows up as mindset — fixed beliefs and assumptions about what will make us successful and what won’t. Emotionally, it usually takes the form of fear.

Amazon changed how we buy things. Netflix transformed how we consume videos. And companies like Airbnb and Uber have shaken up the hotel and transportation industries.

A few years ago, digital disruption was something that happened to someone else. Now, no company is immune.
Disruptive technologies, products, services and business models are being introduced almost daily. So executives need to take charge of their organisation’s response to ensure long-term business success.

But while many organisations are eager to “get ahead of the curve” on digital, there’s no instruction manual or template on how to do it successfully.

A recent KPMG survey of chief executives and chief information officers found that while most are concerned about digital disruption, few are adequately prepared to address it.

Although digital may be disrupting your business model, it also creates opportunities for those that embrace change. Organisations that don’t will find it increasingly difficult to catch up as technology continues to advance rapidly.

So where do you start?

First, understand how digital disruption is affecting your products, services and business model. Then develop a digital strategy. That includes acquiring the necessary digital skills and getting the company to buy into the required changes.

KPMG’s CIO Advisory survey shows this won’t be easy.

The majority of CIOs (58 percent) and almost half of the CEOs (43 percent) are involved or very involved in their firm’s digital business strategy. But only a small number are actively leading the effort.

Given the magnitude of digital disruption, the lack of strong leadership could have a major impact on the company’s ability to adapt.

Companies must master and implement new technologies. That requires new skills, many of which are in short supply. Most CIOs in the KPMG survey cited a lack of critical skills and the limits of existing IT systems as their biggest challenges.

There are no quick solutions to these challenges. But first, companies need to develop a strategy. Without one, it is impossible to tackle the other issues.

Final thought, the complexity of the challenges that organisations face is running far out ahead of the complexity of the thinking required to address them.

Consider the story of the consultant brought in by the CEO to help solve a specific problem: the company is too centralised in its decision making. The consultant has a solution: decentralise. Empower more people to make decisions. And so it is done, with great effort and at great expense. Two years pass, the company is still struggling, and a new CEO brings in a new consultant. We have a problem, the CEO explains. We’re too decentralised. You can guess the solution.

The primary challenge most large companies now face is disruption, the response to which requires a new strategy, new processes, and a new set of behaviors.
But if employees have long been valued and rewarded for behaviors such as practicality, consistency, self-reliance, and prudence, why wouldn’t they find it uncomfortable to suddenly embrace behaviors such as innovation, agility, collaboration, and boldness?
Einstein was right that:

“We can’t solve our problems from the same level of thinking that created them.”

Human development is about progressively seeing more. Learning to embrace our own complexity is what makes it possible to manage more complexity.

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