Creating disruptive teams; the critical leadership competency for technology and digital leaders.

In this new world where Youtube went from startup to sale to Google for $1.4b in 18 months; Instagram went from start up to sale to facebook for $1bn in three years and Uber multiplied its value a tenfold to $17b in two years, the ability to deliver change and disruption to a sector, an industry and to one’s own organisation is arguably the most critical competency a business leader needs to possess.

In the case of technology and digital leaders this is even more critical, as it is to them the CEO and Board will look to for advice and guidance.

Does this come naturally to you? Are you someone who instinctively rejects the status quo and looks for better ways of doing things – and by that I mean true strategic change, not simply process or systems improvement. Do you have the urge to overturn what has gone before – are you a natural iconoclast? Do you encourage change for change’s sake? Would people comment that you have an experimental and pioneering disposition?

There is a continuum of style, personality and track record amongst technology and digital leaders. I don’t think many would disagree when I posit that the nearer to the classic CIO you are on that continuum, the less likely my questions in the preceding paragraph will resonate. Even more importantly then that you ensure you have those creative, innovative and potentially disruptive elements in your team.

Probably this is not what you are used to, but to be a great leader in the second decade of the 21st century absolutely means you have to do cover this off.  So what should you be doing to encourage this capability in your teams? First, you need to be thinking differently: this is no longer the age of the HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion). You must be a change agent, a change catalyst. You need to encourage and develop those in your team who cope well with ambiguity, where the parameters constantly shift, and act appropriately; those who thrive on variety and need a changing environment to feel stimulated. You must encourage and reward those who actively want to change established norms and come up with new ways of seeing the world and of doing things very differently. You need to listen to all and create a fail fast culture. Get rid of business cases and invest money for projects three months at a time. If progress is shown, invest some more; if there is no progress, kill.  Encourage internal crowd sourcing for new ideas; make the most of the millennials in your team.  Who are the people who understand data and information and can manipulate it and analyse it to create new paradigms? Get them to work with innovative and creative business teams in an agile and pacey way. Allow your mavericks head room to try new things. Encourage reverse mentoring, so that talented youngsters work with your exec and board to show them the way. Demand creativity and innovation every day.

It’s different, but it’s vital – and if you don’t do this, the greatest risk is that your organisation, despite its decades or centuries of success, will be hit by a light-footed start up, which is not held back by legacy systems and thought processes,  or by a digital giant – an Amazon or google – who have the vision and deep pockets to disrupt your sector and company, and who will eat your lunch. And you – who did not see it coming – will be responsible for the end of your career.

About the Author

Co-head, Global Digital and Technology Practice
Vicky Maxwell Davies co-heads Savannah’s global Digital & Technology Leaders practice. After taking a degree in French from Sussex University and the Sorbonne, she worked for IBM and Oracle before moving into executive search. She specialises in placing senior technology leaders across all sectors and geographies. Her particular focus is on supporting organisations navigate digital transformation. She also co-created the National Digital Benchmark with Professor Venkatraman of Boston University Business School and PA Consulting. Read here
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