Top Five Characteristics of Successful Digital Transformation Leaders

August 30, 2022

Contributor: Lori Perri

CIOs must possess five key characteristics to lead and deliver on digital transformation.

As CIOs face ever-expanding responsibilities in their roles, they must remain effective in dealing with uncertainty and change. Digital not only disrupts business, it also transforms leadership. Gartner research shows that successful digital business initiatives demand paradigm shifts in technology leadership and new ways of thinking and approaching challenges.

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“CIOs know they must function with flexibility and agility to thrive in the dynamic world. The realities of a disrupted workplace, business model transformations, operating model changes and IT delivery model changes, all force fundamental shifts in the activities and responsibilities of the given role of a CIO,” says Apoorva Chhabra, principal analyst at Gartner. “All of this also creates opportunities for the CIOs to expand their executive leadership.”

How to be a successful digital leader: Five characteristics to adopt

Business transformation can be accelerated or derailed depending on how effective leaders are at transforming themselves. Executive technology leadership must anticipate digital opportunities and threats, use technology to adapt to changing conditions, and find leverage and value from disruption. To become an effective digital CIO, it is important to understand and adopt these five characteristics:

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No. 1: Neophilia: A Tendency to Like Anything New; Love of Novelty

Neophiliacs are naturally curious and attracted to new things. They seek to explore and find new ways to create value.

Neophiliacs welcome varying ideas from others that shift from the past, a key component of any successful digital transformation. A neophiliac asks, “What do we want to achieve?” rather than “What have we got?”, rejecting current assumptions. The ultimate objective drives solutions to seemingly complex problems.

Effective digital CIOs also embrace innovation. They tend to have a high degree of creativity, defined as the ability to connect seemingly unrelated areas.

No. 2: Develop New Opportunities: Invent, but Also Copy

Digital leaders don’t necessarily invent and innovate all the time. In reality, successful digital leaders appreciate exactly where their organizations need to be different, where they can copy and where they should improvise.

Successful digital leaders are selective, doubling down on particular areas that deliver a greater advantage, acceleration or value contribution. In areas where they do not see any clear advantage, digital leaders are comfortable copying and improvising based on already established methods. Ineffective leaders lack focus, and tend to be all over the place with innovation.

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No. 3: Pioneer New Opportunities: Look Beyond Industry Boundaries

This leadership characteristic is personified by what Gartner labels “digital dragons,” who actively seek value beyond any specific industry and create whole new industries as they redefine value in any industry they pursue. Strategies and digital adoption plans are often made only as a result of a market disruption mindset.

Effective digital leaders see threats that aren’t necessarily distinct, and make decisions while maintaining a clear vision of their industry’s future, as opposed to considering the industry static or  unchanging.

No. 4: Seek New Value Creation Opportunities: Never Consider Digital to Be the Outcome 

Successful digital leaders understand that digital is a means, not an end, and that simply making something digital does not necessarily increase its value. It may actually decrease it. 

Digital technology tools either change the way people work, or change the products and services provided, whether through extending the life cycle of a product, adding digital features or providing goods as a service.

Consider the logic behind the product/service’s value proposition before implementing digital tools. Ask how the digital offering drives the business outcomes of customer centricity, greater market share and revenue enhancement. Use digital to boost your value proposition such as on-demand services, hyperpersonalization, dynamic pricing and real-time applications.

No. 5: Focus on Technology-Driven Opportunities: Geek Out on Technology

A successful leader possesses a deep understanding of the technology underlying their business. It’s challenging to get value out of technology if you don’t understand what it does or doesn’t do.

CIOs need to enable a technology-enriched environment, where learning is engaging, collaborative and customized. They should follow —geek out on — technology as a passion, as well as an essential way to stay innovative and relevant in the crowded and competitive business spaces.

In short:

  • CIOs must rethink their role as digital leaders, due to workplace disruptions and ongoing changes to business, operating and IT delivery models.

  • When CIOs deal with uncertainty and change, they are more effective business leaders.

  • Digital transformation requires technology leaders to reinvent their approach, rather than simply respond or react to business requirements.

Apoorva Chhabra is an Principal Analyst, a member of the Innovation and Disruption team, part of Executive Leadership of Digital Business. Her research is focused on helping enterprises to digitally transform and innovate.

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