Leadership in the Digital Economy

The MBS Group has now been appointing in the digital space for 16 years, advising a compelling range of businesses. We have helped entrepreneurs build management teams from scratch – such as Lovefilm, our first digital clients – and now work with a range of big pure-player, global retailers and high-profile startups.

On the 24th of February a select group of CEOs, chairmen and investors joined us at the Soho House Dining Room to discuss how old organisational structures are adapting and changing to accommodate the burgeoning digital landscape. The discussion was lead by former Skype and Spotify executive Faisal Galaria, Martijn Bertisen and David Lloyd of Google, and Kate Smaje, McKinsey’s digital director. Our guests engaged in a fascinating and in-depth discussion tackling two key questions surrounding digital leadership:

Where to look for new kinds of talent?

An immediate issue for our guests was the impression of a lack of talent in the space. It is hugely important for companies to be innovative, original and tailored in their approach to developing roles and functions for digital integration, but in practice this can be a difficult process for traditional retailers. Google has developed initiatives called Digital Garage and the Digital Academy to invest in digital skills and training in the short and long-term; for both senior management and board level executives, and young digital natives with high potential.

The importance of such initiatives was highlighted by a conversation about cultural integration: getting digital into the DNA of a business. Consultants at McKinsey they found cultural change was an ‘unequivocal multiplier’ for a company’s performance. Our guests agreed that attracting young digital talent at less senior levels, was – despite the challenge of making a brand sufficiently appealing – an easier task than gaining support and understanding at the top board level.

Our Google representatives also described data-focus and the recruitment of high-level data scientists as a ‘blind spot’ in current UK retail, and something highly regarded by digital giants such as Ebay and Amazon. Though not everyone agreed such a strategy was paramount, the point that older retailers had a wealth of data and insight new start-ups would ‘kill for’ was raised as a strength area those businesses can, and should, harness.

Should any strategy model take precedent?

Bottom-up recruitment, injections of high-level talent from Google, Apple or Amazon, and internal recruitment and category swapping were just some of the approaches to nurturing digital talent turned over by our guests. Whilst everyone agreed that a digital awareness from all functions was desirable, there were questions over how this might successfully be implemented. One of our guests cited his luxury company’s pioneering approach to digital strategy as a success story of such integration, crediting the link between digital innovation and the innovation that drives the fashion industry. The benefits of setting digital goals that ‘scare 99%’ of an organisation, and developing ambitious and productive partnerships with Google, Facebook and the like were also put forward. Giants like Tesco and Sainsbury’s have already implemented these changes to transform their digital presence.

One guest, a leader in the retail industry, raised the chief challenge of finding people who have both a deep understanding of digital as well as a deep understanding of a business’s core objectives and brand vision. Towards the close of our discussion the table’s attention turned to ways of empowering all categories – from retail, to marketing, to product – to align themselves with digital. And from this, how to develop a trusting, collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship between the digital team and the rest of the organisation.

Conclusion: aspiration, trust and moving towards shared responsibility

The key thread running through what proved to be an invigorating and impeccably topical discussion was that there is ‘no silver bullet’ when it comes to strategising the digital function. In fact, strategy often pales alongside culture. What we agreed on is that to power digital transformation, all companies must strive to shift from command and control to empowerment and accountability within their organisation if they are to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.