Leadership in the age of disruption

Technology has been transforming business since the invention of the wheel and with each era of innovation, traditional industries are forced to reinvent themselves. The digital transformation now underway is perhaps unique only in the breadth of scope. From banking to retail, to entertainment, to food services… virtually every company in every industry is shifting how they engage with customers and markets. This is driving the cloud and DevOps changes we see every day.

The same reinvention can be true of leadership. A recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article put it well when they said that “leadership styles have their times as well as their places” and went on to propose that certain styles may be more favourable when there is both ambiguity and opportunity – such as what we see in digital transformation.

The solution could be in the problem…

That same HBR article presented data that came out of a study of teamwork and leadership at MIT. Or in their case what ended up being ‘anti-leadership’. High functioning engineering organisations such as those at MIT (and those found in many disruptive projects) seem to be drawn more to a problem-led version of leadership. The real leaders are those that frame problems in new ways that draw the right people into the effort.

Researcher and business-transformation pioneer Simon Chan provides a layman’s definition of digital transformation which I think is pretty easy to align around: “Using technology to create differentiating ways of doing business with the aim of driving growth in new and existing markets.” That describes most of the large enterprises that Morpheus works with every day. Centralised IT Ops teams now have a mandate to ‘get out of the way’ so that developers, researchers, and others can accelerate transformation efforts. New generations of IT leaders are those that recognise this change and reframe IT in new ways. Those that fail to adjust their leadership context will be left behind.

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Making the case for a c-level ‘Transformation Officer’

The Enterprises that Morpheus works with on CloudOps and DevOps projects are disrupting old markets to drive new growth. But this is as much about people and process as tools and technologies. When organisations undergo a major transformation, it must be driven top-down from the board and CEO, but also from a proven change agent.

This is the role played by the Digital or Chief Transformation Officer (DTO/CTO), who helps give the right level of importance to what can be a difficult shift. However, a single individual alone cannot drive the agenda. It must be clearly communicated from the top that these types of major changes require the complete buy-in of the entire organisation.

The DTO/CTO’s key role is to “encourage and embed change”. They drive change by holding responsible the parties managing the hundreds or thousands of components that comprise a typical program. They are masters at balancing: short-term successes vs. long-term value, delegating responsibility to line managers vs. personally ensuring results, and committing limited resources to specific transformation projects vs. shifting resources as priorities change.

These leaders must have cross-functional expertise in the technologies, processes, and people skills to evangelise change and drive results. Ideally, they should not be seen as part of the legacy they are trying to displace, but they can benefit from having proven success in other turbulent projects within the organisation.

A survey of successful Digital Transformation Officers identifies key attributes of executives in the role.

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DTOs can own the mandate and provide the urgency required to personally orchestrate a great number of disparate initiatives, they must be seen as an integral part of the executive team and an extension of the CEO.

Many of these requirements are echoed in projects involving cloud and DevOps. Simply creating a “DevOps team” or a “Cloud Czar” does not assure success. In fact, the very thought that DevOps could be driven by an individual or group is a symbol that the organisation has not truly embraced the need for a complete shift at a broad level to ensure its success.

Like Yoda once said “Do… or do not. There is no try.” Or to put it another way you’ve got to be 100 committed to transformation at all levels of the organisation and the business should be on the lookout for a new breed of leader ready to face the context of tomorrow’s challenges.

Written by Brad Parks, VP of Business Development at Morpheus Data
Written by Brad Parks, VP of Business Development at Morpheus Data

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