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Ability to learn as critical in leaders as previous knowledge

Published on Saturday, 29 Jul 2017

Alibaba, which owns the SCMP, recently unveiled an experimental cashier-less café, Tao Café, which aims to disrupt the offline retail space. Fans of the company even made the long trek to Hangzhou, queueing for hours to experience a ground-breaking concept that uses digital menus, automated visual sensors, facial recognition devices and wireless e-payment. It was ironic, though, that there was an actual flesh-and-blood cashier behind the counter to ensure that the “autonomous” concept ran autonomously.

This exemplifies my last article in June, in which I contended that, for all the rapid advances in technology and the impact they have on business, the human factor – especially leadership ability – will continue to be a key component in digital transformation. Though proponents of digitisation like to wax lyrical about the subject, my recent consulting experience has been rather counter-intuitive. In most cases, organisations undergoing digital transformation find it confusing and frustrating.

These issues stem primarily from factors such as poor planning, a mismatch between technology and actual needs and processes, and a lack of commitment, support and communication among stakeholders. And, most importantly, the type of leadership required to lead digital transformation.

Sadly, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Generally, there are “born digital” and “going digital” leaders who will be integral to the success of an organisation during such transformations. Born digital executives are those who rise through the ranks in pure-play digital firms. As such, their deep experience, albeit likely with a narrow focus, and unparalleled technological knowledge can provide the technical drive for digital transformation.

On the other hand, a going digital executive emphasises more the emotional intelligence, cultural dexterity, learning agility and communication skills during the transformation. These, in turn, will determine the direction, consensus and critical rapport among the stakeholders, as the process can be uncertain and the benefits might sometimes be intangible.

My advice for hiring managers looking for “transformation talent” is to assess candidates’ learning agility as well as their technical know-how. The stronger the candidate’s ability to manage complexity and ambiguity, the greater their chance of building critical consensus among stakeholders and addressing market needs with something better and different.



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