"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives... it is the one that is most adaptable to change." Charles Darwin.
An oft-quoted statistic is that over half of the organizations that made up the Fortune 500 in 2000 no longer exist; and that digital disruption was the most important factor in determining the fate of these now defunct businesses. Moreover, disruption is continuing to gather pace, as technologies develop further and new ways of applying the different technologies are discovered. Under these circumstances, the fundamental challenge for all organisations is to position themselves so they are able to adapt to embrace the changes taking place.Organizations which are able to do this are likely to survive and flourish. Those that are not face the prospect of decline and quite possibly extinction. The same goes for Leaders.
This starts with personal learning. Leaders cannot adapt if they don’t know what is happening and what they need to adapt to. Few leaders today have a profound appreciation of digital, and even where they do they need to keep up with new developments. Therefore, they need to build their own understanding of digital developments and their implications. But for many senior leaders, ‘going back to school’, and acknowledging the extent of their lack of knowledge and understanding, may prove to be quite a sobering and humbling experience. Adding to the challenge, much of what they learned previously may no longer be as relevant or applicable in the digital age – meaning that they need to be prepared to ‘unlearn’ some of what they have previously believed to be true, and which has proved valuable in helping them achieve the positions they now occupy.
Leaders need to make use of all possible avenues to build their digital knowledge, and to obtain a variety of different perspectives. This includes reaching outwards beyond the organization to external experts, but also increasing their access to internally-generated knowledge though more active connection with the wider organization. Today’s senior leaders are frequently disconnected from large parts of the organizations they lead, surrounded by a core group of key personnel, and rarely interacting with those nearer the front-line. But in the digital world, more junior staff may well be a more valuable source of input than senior ones, not least because they are often more familiar with the digital developments taking place.
Perhaps most challenging of all, Leaders also need to be learning – and putting into practice – new ways and styles of working and leading. Closer engagement with the wider organization is just one example of this; others include a greater willingness to embrace experimentation – and the learning which arises from it – as a vehicle for business change, and a greater preparedness to accept new ideas which challenge the ‘conventional wisdom’. This plays into the importance of promoting and encouraging diversity, in particular, diversity in terms of perspective, mindset and thinking, and to embrace these as part of the vibrant learning environment required for digital success.
By demonstrating their personal commitment to learning, Leaders are also helping to promulgate and embed an ethos of learning within their organization, which is essential to enabling the wider organization to become more adaptable. And of course, even if Leaders themselves adapt to the new digital realities, they will still not survive if their organizations don’t.
‘Good leaders, good CEOs, are curious. They are absorbing information about potentially important trends and developments all the time, but they don’t instantly react to them. They contemplate them. They read about them. They listen to internal and external experts with a variety of perspectives. They engage in what I call a “soak period” before they reach a conclusion about what the input means for their company and how to act on it.’ (Jeff Immelt, former CEO, General Electric)