top of page

Digital Transformation:
3 Keys for Leaders Navigating the Digital Age

By Marisa Zalabak

Published November 3, 2019

I was recently shocked to learn that my ability to deal with a digital challenge was not far behind that of an engineering student at a top university that I had asked for help. You see, I’m not a digital native, and have learned (like most of us) to handle the technology I need, but often don’t know much beyond what I use until something comes along that requires a new skill. 

I’d asked this student to help me solve a problem that he had never encountered before and we discovered there was no easy fix, that it required learning about a newly developed application. I did more research, asked more people, experimented, and after making several mistakes I discovered a solution to the problem. I wasn't unusual and the student I asked wasn't behind in skills. Even the world’s top graduate schools cannot predict the jobs and tasks for the future, as pointed out by Isabelle Bajeaux-Besnainou, Dean of Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill university, “We cannot teach skills [for technologies] we don’t know exist yet.”

It’s been the same story through history—just as previous generations learned to use new technologies-- like industrial machinery and telecommunication—successful adaptation requires learning. Understanding how to improve and create the conditions for learning is what leaders across sectors need to focus on as they navigate through the ever-expanding sea of digital transformation.

Digital transformation is at the forefront for advancements in the systems and the workforce. The future workforce will increasingly consist of humans and intelligent machines working together. With machine technologies revolutionizing business operations, processes, and customer experiences; maximizing the workforce begins and ends with leaders' ability to create a culture that fosters thinking and working in new ways--modifying existing practices while building capacity for innovation.

One of the current challenges is the speed of machines outpacing the human capacity to prepare data for processing. Since advancements in technology will only increase, this makes it is vital for leaders to focus on development of the human capital in the workforce. The skills needed will be constantly changing, so this is not about tossing out the existing talent to hire more tech-savvy people.

Understanding that top graduate schools can’t predict what jobs will look like and what skills will be needed as technologies change, there is a need for renewed emphasis on development, as this article in The World Economic Forum stresses, “[Success] will likely entail investments in training, apprenticeship and cross-functional rotations.” Again, rather than replacing talent, as inevitable changes occur, the challenge becomes finding strategies for helping the human workforce adapt and maneuver in continually changing conditions. 

This is not a one-shot deal, this wave of digital transformation has also only just begun and learning how to navigate through new territory will be an ongoing process. This process can be exciting, frustrating, frightening, and thrilling. Leaders who are willing to take on the challenge need to focus on the humans involved. This requires forward thinking with embodied leadership invested in 3 key areas of focus: Learning Culture, Communication Skills, Relationship Building.

None of these key focus areas are new but they do require attention and strategic planning to consistently adapt and improve.

1.  Learning Culture


A report from the World Economic Forum annual meeting highlights the need for leaders to adopt a practice for digital learning as one of the three top priorities for CEO’s worldwide. Echoing this, the 4th annual global survey on digital best practices conducted by MIT Sloan Management and Deloitte calls for leaders to provide a culture, environment, and opportunities for continual learning for employees. “Although 90% of survey’s respondents expressed the need to improve their use of data analytics, only 30% of employees surveyed felt satisfied with how their organizations are providing sufficient on-the-job, experiential learning opportunities to gain skills and needed to prepare them for advances in digital transformation.” Results of the survey also stressed the need for leaders to provide more “Direction; connecting learning to vision and purpose…creating the conditions for people to experiment…empowering people to think differently.” In other words, the most important focus should not be what we learn but how and why we learn


“Only 30% of employees surveyed felt satisfied with how their organizations are providing sufficient on-the-job, experiential learning opportunities to gain skills needed to prepare them for advances in digital transformation.”

The cost of replacing talent far exceeds the cost of training. The Work Institute 2019 Retention Report estimates that the average cost of replacement is 33% of a worker’s annual salary, or higher dependent on the level of talent. As participants of a World Economic Forum workshop discussed, “We anticipate customer needs, rather than simply react to them. Why can’t we apply the same logic to our employees? Can we identify unique needs among our employees and serve them differently, offering individualized learning plans, tailored recruiting messages and even personalized rewards?” 

Top business leaders looking to foster high-level talent create environments and cultures conducive to exploration and growth. With lifelong learning modeled by the leadership, motivation increases throughout the organization. As mentioned in this article in Human Engineers, since learning something new often requires un-learning previous knowledge, employees benefit most with leaders willing to take the risks they need themselves to shift out dated thinking.

One way for leaders to explore and to provide support is by fostering habits for imaginative learning such as McKinsey’s Consortium for Advancing Adult Learning & Development (CAALD) or Harvard’s Project Zero: Learning-Innovations Laboratory. CAALD consists of a think tank; corporate and nonprofit leaders, academic researchers in the fields of psychology and neuroscience, technology innovators focused on reimagining and reshaping adult learning and development. The framework for Harvard’s Learning-Innovations Laboratory focuses on the habits of mind needed for creativity in learning and has no set sequence. Instead, it is based on the theory that it is best to explore habits in-depth, learning through experience. Habits include observation, reflection, experimentation, and flexible thinking. Since learning something new requires un-learning, employees benefit most with leaders willing to actualize innovation by modeling what it looks like to change and grow.

2. Communication Skills


Learning requires the emotional intelligence skills for communication. 

Communication, n. The imparting or exchanging of information. The successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.

Investing in the development of communication, incorporating traditional methods with emerging technologies is the second key. Although communication generally comes under two categories, verbal and non-verbal, there are multiple ways each can be accomplished. Here, developing social-emotional awareness and multicultural understanding skills is essential.

Communication is more than just speaking and listening. The ways that messages are given and received is affected by myriad factors including, culture, context, emotions, physical environment, and the medium used to communicate. For example, differences between face-to-face meetings,  texting, phone calls, documents, and video conferencing. Collaboration in-person and virtually is another reality to consider. The complexity is why clear, effective communication skills are necessary for every organization world-wide.

Ø  Verbal 

o   Speaking: with and to others 

o   Recorded Media: presentations, instructional, and dictation

Ø  Non-Verbal

o   Body Language: movement, facial expression, cultural habits

o   Writing; public and private formats

o   Visual Images: influenced by shapes, color, and format

o   Energy: physical and tonal impression

Expert panelists reviewing the results of a Crain’s Future of Worksurvey, discussed strategies for challenges facing leaders in the digital age. Best practices for addressing leadership capability included building trust with transparency in communication, clarifying how changes in digitization will affect employees’ work, and providing support for communicating effectively with and through new machine platforms. This extends to the need for global businesses to possess geopolitical understanding and an ability to communicate with partners and consumers through diverse digital formats.

The myth that people are “born with it” or not (the ability to communicate well) needs to be debunked. Even for the most agile communicators, developing effective communication skills is a process that continues throughout a lifetime and requires intentional focus. In addition to becoming tech-savvy it includes acquiring interconnected social-emotional competencies to improve self-awareness, self-regulation, flexible thinking, problem-solving tools, and multicultural agility. 

3.  Relationship Building

Motivation to communicate is driven by another aspect of social-emotional intelligence, the ability to build relationships.

The importance of relationships in business and well-being in life is indisputable. This includes relationships with leaders, internal and external stakeholders, with the public, and now, between humans and machines. Building relationships is dependent on the level of trust in an organization. Ideally this grows out of a culture with aligned values, mission, and vision shared and modeled by leaders.

When building relationships, it’s important for leaders to first take stock of their relationship assets—acknowledging what is good about existing relationships and identifying which relationships need attention and improvement. With strong relationships in place, people are able to take the risks needed to adapt and grow.  

This is where building relationships is connected to learning. As the Crain’s panel experts stress, with relationships of trust in place, leaders can help people see the personal benefits in digitalization, increasing the likelihood of buy-in for learning. John Pepper, former CEO of P&G and Disney Board member, writes in Yale Insights, “Business is a social act…business comes down to people working together to make something happen. Whether it’s creating a product, delivering a service, or negotiating a partnership, organizations are an aggregation of endless formal and informal interactions. The most effective leaders are able to draw on the capabilities, expertise, and different perspectives within their informal networks. The importance of relationships can also be seen in an organization’s external interactions, where a range of stakeholders—customers, suppliers, shareholders, employees, and the communities an organization is based in—play a role in success or failure.”

Digitalization doesn’t change the importance of relationships, arguably it increases the importance. At a time when humans and machines are increasingly working side by side, strong relationships will be the anchor for effective and ethical problem-solving.

In the end, building a network of trusted relationships is just plain good for business—no matter what the business. It’s why the amount of ‘Good Will’ an organization is considered an asset. This asset becomes the foundation for growth of existing talent and a magnet for recruiting new talent, partners, and customers.

Simply put--in a learning culture with good communication and relationships-- human beings and businesses flourish-- and everyone wins.

bottom of page