Sep 2, 2023
In 2021, digital transformation spending reached 1.59 trillion $. By 2026, it is expected to reach 3.4 trillion.
Companies are pressured to change based on the broader context and global events.
As one of my articles said, we don't evolve in a vacuum but as part of an ecosystem. What is happening in this ecosystem directly impacts our daily work.
The tech department is one of the departments feeling the pressure. Product managers, business analysts, engineers and data scientists are at the centre of those transformations and feel the heat.
However, we see the same pattern and challenges faced since IT departments exist. The tech and product teams are still seen as the team in a basement aside from the organization.
It feels like we are in the TV show the IT crowd.
It's unclear if we are here to support the organization or help move it forward.
We are part of the strategy considered as a crucial function. Yet, it seems like it only sometimes.
Changes and demands are dropped on our heads from far above in the sky, and we can't see them coming.
We need to adapt. After all, "it's just tech. It must be easy".
Years in our role, we have lost the meaning of what we do—feeling that we are stuck between the rock and the hard place.
We are swallowed by a culture leading to poor data quality and bad practices in feature development, leading to feature factories.
We chase our tail, expecting the next feature to help us escape the rat race.
The most influential person or the high-paying customer has almost a direct look into the roadmap and can change it.
This type of culture leads to more problems. We are stuck in the vicious circle of feature development.
The vision and mission given to us is to enable the organization to reach new heights. We want to become customer-centric, product-led, and data-driven. We want to transform our ways to tackle the problems arising slowly around us.
It pushes us to think long-term. To not paint ourselves in a corner. We don't want to make harsh or quick decisions that could be fatal in the long term.
It brings a gigantic complexity from a technological and product standpoint. We have to prepare for the unknowns.
However, we can't build anything that is not useful—no time to spare on frivolous development or refactoring. We have to help the company now while it's struggling.
What matters is the short-term results!
The conflict between short-term thinking on profit and result and long-term thinking on sustainability is an everyday battle.
How truly successful can we be in those situations?
The real problem we face
I see the problem every day in my role as a consultant and a teacher.
Companies are pouring millions to help themselves transform. They launch and buy training for their staff to help them change.
In the last 2 years, I have taught more than 1,000 data scientists, engineers and business analysts about digital transformation and new product skills. I covered with them from data workplace strategy to our role.
One of the recurring discussions is about the struggle of being a digital translator inside the business. That is a reality that those people are facing—the same I described above.
It's a problem I have seen early on in my career.
"Nobody is here to build the bridge between IT and the business."
It's also what pushes me at a certain point to make a bet. I made the one for my growth and the expertise I wanted to develop. It's also the foundation of this book.
My early experiences taught me the importance of understanding the broader business landscape and not blindly following prescribed frameworks.
My background and upbringing were on construction sites, harvesting fields and in a factory supply chain.
From a young age, I understood the labour needed to support a family and society.
I understood what it meant to be sustainable. How everything worked together in harmony. How technology is helping us move faster and be more productive.
The right tool for the right job.
I also understood the impact employees can have on a business and vice-versa. I saw how lean manufacturing or governance framework could kill innovation and happiness.
I witnessed the waste as the people who knew the problem had no voice.
I value the job that is done on the ground. The work is done by the people who produce the results and value that customers pay for.
This is why companies like Starbucks, Target or McDonalds are spending billions in training their staff on behaviour. The ones facing the customer represent the business, the extension of the product and the brand.
Happy employees = happy customers.
Making their life easier is not an option. It's a necessity. It's the best way to grow the business.
Zappos built their whole strategy on this. They identified values and changed their processes to "wow" customers through their customer service department. Leading to a $1 billion acquisition by Amazon. The acquisition was not just the company but their practices.
What all those places and experiences have in common is the lack or the abundance of leadership.
As I was growing up in a leadership role, I wanted to do things differently. There was another way to build a business and lead people.
This is why I have been pushing and evangelizing for an evolved version of the product manager and business analyst role.
Why those two in particular? For the simple reason that those two roles are already sitting on the fence between business and technology.
By acquiring new skills, transforming the reach and changing the perspective of the role, we could unlock incredible results.
Being a bridge between business and tech
I started my career as an expert consultant and project manager.
Identifying the vision with the clients and dividing it into manageable bite-sized chunks.
I come from a computer science background. Dividing things was like building an algorithm for a system I wanted to code.
As I was evolving in that role, I saw also what needed to be fixed. There was a ceiling between the people on the ground and the people in the sky.
People were communicating in different languages.
With everything happening and the general public's better comprehension of technology, traditional businesses are pressured to transform and operate within the fourth revolution's new paradigms.
With this market shift, there is a pressing need to reassess traditional roles within businesses.
One role at the forefront of this reevaluation is that of the Product Manager and business analyst, which has yet to reach its full potential.
Here is why I want to embrace the term: 'Digital Leader.'
I want to help a new generation reach their potential and gear them to face the reality of the market.
The term "digital leader" captures the essential transformations that this role needs to undergo to cater to the emerging digital landscape of businesses.
The evolution from a Product Manager to a Digital Leader signifies a shift from a reactive stance to a proactive one.
It means becoming a change catalyst within the organization, translating business needs into tangible deliverables.
It means creating significant value for the business and the users by using data and new emerging technologies.
My definition of being a digital Leader means balancing a comprehensive skill set.
The representation comprises three primary pillars: digital expertise, people mastery, and true productivity.
These elements, although distinct, are intertwined, forming a robust foundation for any successful Digital Leader.
It is how I trained more than 1k business analysts, software engineers, project and product managers, data engineers and scientists.
Throughout my career, professionals often over-focus on one aspect, such as the product itself, whilst neglecting the broader business context.
There is no point in putting the user at the centre if it doesn't serve the business.
Moreover, they say they are data-centric without understanding the meaning and impact of this data on the rest of the business.
It's also farfetched to expect our users to tell us what they need. We are not here to wait and see but to act.
This limited view is restrictive and fails to harness the full potential of the role.
"Understand the user's needs and pains" is insufficient and doesn't represent what we must do. After all, customer success does that; sales do it too.
Our unique position is to read the fluctuations in the market and feel where the market is going. It's like a prediction or a seventh sense.
Digital Leader - A role based on translation skills
A crucial part of the Digital Leader's role lies in their ability to integrate every organizational function and unit. The aim is to promote a comprehensive understanding and application of technologies.
It's a horizontal role that crosses the different layers of the business.
We see many organizations claiming to be product-led. Yet, their approach often mirrors an IT service rather than being integral to the strategic decision-making process.
The product team is part of the tech team and is seen as a service. In return, the product team is playing the waiting game. Waiting for requests and executing commands like a terminal.
The role of a Digital Leader transcends conventional responsibilities.
In my career, I evolved my skills to hone the bridge role, linking the technical and business aspects within the organization.
I was not a pure product manager; I wanted to be part of the business. I wanted to be close and influence strategy.
The strategy gives direction to the business. It has a direct impact on the product.
If you don't care about strategy or don't try to influence, then decisions will be made for you.
However, retaining individuals who have developed those skills within traditional businesses can be challenging.
The tech industry tends to recruit those with an ability for digital translation, inadvertently disrupting their bridging role within the business.
Recognizing these individuals' unique positioning within the organizational structure and ensuring appropriate sponsorship is vital.
It's a role that requires playing an active role, pushing and testing the boundaries. Being assertive and leading with authority. While at the same being patient and resilient.
The role has to break the wall of misunderstanding.
They must push against the ingrained separation between tech and the business side. This gap has been allowed to grow for too long. It blocks companies from becoming digital and is the root of many problems.
To break this wall of misunderstanding, the Digital Leader must leverage their unique position as a bridge and translator.
They have to champion the integration of tech and business by advocating for shared goals, transparency, and collaborative decision-making.
Those leaders have to gain skills in the three areas above:
True Productivity - Driving efficiency and effectiveness in operations. A Digital Leader must identify areas for improvement, streamline processes, eliminate waste, and ensure that projects are executed within timelines and budgets. They should aim for the optimal utilization of resources and foster a culture of continuous improvement within the organization.
People Mastery - The bedrock of leadership is exceptional interpersonal skills to manage and inspire teams. A Digital Leader must cultivate trust, encourage open communication, and promote collaboration across departments. They have to be able to resolve conflicts and motivate team members. They must also be efficient in stakeholder management, understanding their needs, navigating politics and influencing them.
Digital Expertise - involves a deep understanding of technology and how it can be leveraged to drive business growth. This requires staying updated with the latest technological trends, understanding how to implement them within the business context, and making strategic decisions based on this knowledge. It also includes understanding and analyzing data to make informed decisions.
What strategies can Product Leaders use to integrate every organizational function and unit?
In my observation, many professionals remain passive in their roles. "What can I do if management is not listening? How can I change what they think? How can I influence when I have no authority?"
Those questions are blocking the minds of people and their actions.
We all have authority in a certain way. The myth about "influencing without authority" is nonsense.
Another clickbait saying that people say on social media. It sounds excellent and catchy on a tweet, but that's about it.
In reality, think about it like this:
"have you ever bought something or followed someone without thinking about their authority in the domain?"
It doesn't matter what position they were in or if they are in the company you work in. You may have followed them because they were knowledgeable or someone said they were the authority.
An influencer on social media has no authority over food, music, clothes or in your life. Yet these people are followed by millions who buy their products or recommendations.
Authority is a mindset. It's a tag we put on ourselves.
It's something we give to people. We provide permission to be influenced.
It's a decision we make. And it all boils down to leadership. We have a vision, and we want to make it come true.
People rarely go beyond their responsibilities to create change. This is a missed opportunity, as proactive engagement enhances individual growth and aligns with the organization's vision.
A misconception I often encounter is the assumed opposition between work and life. We spend half our awake time at work or working. Opposing them can only create unhappiness.
The transformation journey from being a passive follower to a leader to a proactive leader isn't overnight; it requires a culture shift, evolving work methodologies, and a mindset upgrade.
In one of my experiences, this transformation took about twelve months to complete, involving a complete change in the team's mindset and the introduction of new metrics. This shift became noticeable over time by others. They wanted to join our team. They looked at our habits. Our change provoked a ripple effect throughout the rest of the organization.
It's important to remember that a top-down, company-wide change often fails without the active involvement and empowerment of everyone below.
Slack is the perfect example. How many projects for better collaboration have been pushed by company management? How many succeeded?
Slack came out of nowhere, was adopted by people on the ground, and then pushed to the rest of the organization.
If you want to transform truly, it's far more effective to cultivate a team responsible for the change, eventually becoming a strategic asset to the organization.
Where to Start?
It took me more than a decade to find my leadership style. It took me time to transform, test, experiment and grow in a role that fulfilled and suited me.
This change starts by focusing on you first. Where you are right now and then, the three areas of digital leadership are true productivity, people mastery and digital expertise.
Before diving into the three dimensions, we must explore only one task you can do now.
Create your hero
I love games.
When playing games, everything is possible. As kids, we could imagine we were everything we wanted the way we wanted. Science and limitations had no place.
Games and stories have a lot in common.
The best games have incredible stories, immersing you in your character's skin.
The best stories start by presenting the context, the world and the protagonist.
The protagonist is you. You are the hero of your story and about to embark on an epic journey.
The first task is to create your character sheet.
Create your hero with skills, experiences, expertise and superpower.
Your CV is a good starting point. Yet, more than one side of your character is needed to represent you fully.
1. What is your personality?
You have aspirations, a background, a story, motivations, fears, strengths and weaknesses.
So, before looking at your CV and the work experiences. I recommend doing a personality test: https://www.16personalities.com/.
This free website will let you do a personality test in a few minutes.
The test will give you an overview of your strengths and weaknesses.
The exciting part is recognizing what you think about your character. Talk to your friends to see their perspective and what they believe is true.
The personality test doesn't tell everything.
You had a particular upbringing, DNA and aspirations. This is just one facet of what you are as a hero.
2. What is your quest?
Why do you want to be better? What is lacking? What is your calling?
Every hero who embarks on an adventure has a calling. They want to change or explore the world.
They are ready to jump into the unknown after meeting someone who has triggered something in their life.
It's sometimes what people call a purpose.
Your purpose needs to be a virtue as opposed to a sin.
You must transform your first thoughts from a sin to a virtue.
Giving you an example:
"I want to make more money."
The question here is why?
Is it to have a better life?
Is it to be able to travel?
Is it to protect your family?
Generally, one thought or desire we have is rooted in one problem. You don't have to find it right now. You will discover it along the way.
In my case, I want to transmit what I learn and give a chance to people from the same background as me. I also want to protect and provide for the people around me.
I need to transform to reach that goal and make it come true.
A fundamental purpose will give you the energy and resilience necessary for the journey.
3. Make an inventory of your traits
We need a starting point on who we are and what we are missing. What are the things we need to improve? Where do we feel we lack power?
Most of the SWOT analyses are done from the point of view of a business or a product.
On my side, I like to see it from a personal perspective.
Use the canvas below to identify your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
4. Identify your accomplishments
This is where the CV comes in handy.
I work with my mentee and advise them on reviewing their CV. It is a long work, and everyone has the same problem.
People need help recognizing their accomplishments.
There are multiple reasons:
Lack of confidence
Unaware of the impact people had
Thinking it's arrogance
None of this matters if you are stating facts.
To state facts, I generally use the following structure:
Action verb + description of the impact + Significant numbers + Outcome business/users
This straightforward formula will help you describe what you have done.
Embarking on your digital leadership journey necessitates initiating a review of your skills. Identify areas that are lagging. Talk to your teams, family, and friends, gather their insights, and create a personal vision.
Let's go on a ride and develop the three aspects of digital leadership: true productivity, people mastery and digital expertise.
The following chapters will be based on those three aspects, and it is your choice to use and jump from one another the way you see fit.
Digital leadership is about guiding your organization through the ever-evolving digital landscape with vision, adaptability, and a collaborative spirit. So, dive in, stay curious, and lead the change.