Impactful Leadership in the “Green Digital” Age

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Chapter And Authors Information
Impactful Leadership in the “Green Digital” Age
From the Edited Volume
Edited By:
Professor John Metselaar


CEOs and their executive teams have a tremendous challenge to lead us successfully through this digital age. To do so, they must embed their core values into a transformative vision that will have a positive impact on their companies – through inspiration and profit – and their world – through social and environmental change for the better. The principles of their vision should manifest in strategies that are accelerated using digital tools used to rapidly change and improve their business model as well as to enhance progress towards their sustainability objectives. These strategies must be executed while managing the torrential pace of change of our digital world, the volume of information that is available to analyze daily, and while mastering the rapidly evolving digital communication approaches that are needed to connect with employees throughout the business. Finally, they must ensure that the current and future leaders of the organization are professionally coached throughout this transformative era to allow them to adjust, develop, learn, and leverage capabilities to develop their digital persona and other emerging communication tools to further enhance messaging, awareness, and alignment. Most importantly, leaders must be living their most meaningful lives while providing this same opportunity to those that work for them as they navigate the digital landscape.


Strategic portfolio, persona, Industrial Social Impact Innovation (ISII), Green Digital, authenticity, environmental, social, profitable, innovation, outcomes

Our New World

Like it or not, the Green Digital Age (GDA) is upon us, and there is an opportunity for businesses to shift the world! Digital speed can accelerate us at unprecedented rates to new heights of societal gain, profit, and a sparkling environment. At the same time, we have a deep need for CEOs, their executive teams, and emerging leaders to steer us through this era in which market fluidity and social change occur at breakneck speed, and leadership bench depth is not guaranteed. Consider these questions:

  • How do CEOs and their leaders decide what is the most profitable path to growth and the maximization of shareholder return while understanding and acting with equal concern regarding environmental stewardship and societal gain
  • How do CEOs and their leaders create and communicate visions that equally emphasize their ethics and principles while delivering on these three expectations – profit, society, and environment?

Each market opportunity’s likelihood of success must be rapidly and carefully analyzed to ensure growth of the business and impact on our planet. In addition to making the correct business decisions, the best CEOs will also share who they are as individuals. With that in mind:

  • How do CEOs and their leaders show us their heart, their capacity for caring, and their balanced world of family and community in this digital age while still running the business?

These executives must not only ensure that their life integrates family, spirit, business, and health; they must make it possible for each associate to achieve what is needed for the organization while also allowing them to live their chosen life. By retaining and rewarding the best talent in a well-proportioned atmosphere, these ideal executives will create a culture that drives personal and economic growth where the three pillars of greening the environment, improving social welfare, and growing profits are interwoven into a flywheel that benefits each of us.

The GDA CEO and Digital Savvy

In the GDA, Green Digital companies grow individually, multiply collectively, have a significant impact on society, and generate the needed profitability and adaptability to thrive. Industrial Social Impact Innovation (ISII) is a key lever for these visionary corporations to lift the lives of communities, and the ideal Green Digital organization offers an opportunity to accelerate this type of meaningful innovation by strategically aligning profitable corporate and individual outcomes with harmonized environmental and socioeconomic benefits while accelerating these effects through digital transformation. Imagine the number of unique leaders required to successfully deliver a firm to its intended outcomes in this complex setting. They must deliver on each of the following questions.

How do CEOs and their key executives:

  • create an ethical and strategic vision while living a meaningful life?
  • bolster their strategy with an aligned digitally savvy project portfolio?
  • master daily information management?
  • lead the vision to inspire game changing talent?
  • offer a resonating customer experience?
  • deliver on digital decisions that transform the organization and the community – by being digitally savvy?

Focusing on the top seat in the organization, the final bullet is a key component for any CEO to leverage the advantages of the GDA. That said, based on a study published in the Sloan Management Review in March 2021, only 25% of current CEOs could be considered digitally savvy – which is defined by Peter Weis as possessing “an understanding, developed through experience and education, of the impact that emerging technologies will have on a business’s success over the next decade.” Additionally, only 7% of these organizations were led by digitally savvy teams. The same issue has been uncovered at the board level where, another MIT study “of around 3000 companies with over one billion dollars in annual revenues showed that 76% of boards weren’t digitally savvy — be it in terms of directors’ backgrounds, the number with digital experience, or the way boards interacted with executives on technology-related issues. Interestingly, companies with three or more digitally savvy directors on their boards reported 17% higher profit margins and 38% higher revenue growth than those with two or fewer directors” (HBR, Nov 2021). While these shortcomings will affect vision, strategy, innovation portfolios and execution, an additional expectation permeates this Green Digital world with our final question of executive vulnerability.

  • How do CEOs use digitally savvy to master digital authenticity in all communications – sharing their true selves without being physically present?

Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg emphasized that “leaders should strive for authenticity over perfection,” while Howard Schultz, former CEO of Starbucks, noted, “the companies that are lasting are those that are authentic.” (HBR, Jan 2022). Linking back to our initial question of CEO’s showing us their heart in this age leaves wanting more information:

  • How is this digital authenticity achieved?
  • What is the best medium to use for distinct types of communication?
  • What type of digital persona is the CEO conveying?
  • How should a CEO adjust based on his own emotions of the day?

A CEO must master these approaches to virtual and face to face communications to excel in the GDA while possessing enough savvy to include the best bets in his strategic project portfolio.

Our First Step – Ethics and Strategic Vision

So where do we begin? Let’s start at the foundation of any company outlined in the bullets below. A desire for challenge and change must lie the hearts of our Green Digital Leaders. This environment should invigorate them, even if it gives them pause when considering the immensity of the task at hand. Leaders must chart the course of the company and offer high, realistic expectations and rewards for achievement. These expectations should be guided by their vision and accelerated with a digitally savvy strategy. Leaders should be excited by these challenges and look forward to collaborating to climb the mountain. With that thinking in mind,

  • How do CEOs build a strategy that emanates from their compelling world view and company vision?
  • How do they ensure that they live a meaningful life?

Let’s begin with forming the vision where ethics and core values must be interwoven, and visible use of these ethics are apparent when executive decisions are discussed and shared. A meaningful vision has two key components: Core Ideology and an Envisioned Future (HBR, Sept 1996).

Core ideology defines what we stand for and why we exist. The envisioned future represents what we aspire to become, to achieve, to create. (HBR, 1996)

Too often the vision is created and set aside, and the strategy is independently formed. Core values should shape the strategy and not shift with an unexpected economic event, a change in leadership or a drift in market forces. Companies that ingrain and maintain core values and purpose into their organization – regardless of leadership – have outperformed the stock market by a factor of twelve since 1925 (Collins, 1994). These values are the rudder for the company through the best and worst years, and the nature of all decisions should emanate from this value-based vision and purpose. However, this effort does not eliminate the callousness of a market or the ruthlessness of the forces that shape an industry. Only a clear plan with measured milestones that emanates from the vision – with agile responses to obstacles – will lead to a transformational result.

Uncovering Leadership Values and Leading a Meaningful Life

To lead from core values, each CEO must identify and publicize their values that drive their actions, and each leader offers different values and strengths. Once these values are discovered and shared, leaders must be obsessed with embedding them into the tone that they are setting from the C-suite and most importantly into their own efforts. An atmosphere of ethical behavior and reinforced messaging is fundamental to set the bar for the rest of the company and will lead to the best decisions and outcomes throughout the organization, as individuals reflect leadership. (ACFE, Nov 2020)

Now imagine that our leaders are human and:

  • care about their spouses, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, aging mothers, and fathers, as well as a circle of friends and community.
  • experience the stresses of life – just like the rest of us.
  • strive to eat healthily, exercise, sleep eight hours, maintain their spirit, and search for personnel growth opportunities.
  • aspire to be the ideal parent and professional.

Where is the time to accomplish all these aspirations? It is no wonder that we have a scarcity of skills needed to lead in this unique environment. But what is needed has been here all along; that is what this chapter is about.

Each CEO must ask themself:

  • What are the core tenants and behaviors that CEOs need to be able to thrive in this digital age?
  • How will these core tenets allow CEOs to choose the strategic tools that should be emphasized to grow the business?
  • How do these tenets help balance a digital transformation with growing the legacy business or upgrading a digital native?
  • How do these principles impact the business model and investment selection?
  • And how are ethics and vision woven into a business that is infused with an aspirational tone from the c-suite?

While the selection of the core tenets is not absolute, the CEO’s principles must be unwavering while propelling their organization, their families and themselves through to the next era – where change will be even more rapid and challenging to manage. These principles are also the key to leading a meaningful life (Christenson, 2012).

While introspection can lead to the identification of our core values, we can also consider others’ attributes as a behavioral model. Often history offers a perspective for us to consider how to best approach the future. As we consider several historical leaders, we can review the behaviors that they used to lead themselves through their impactful lives and think about how they could apply today. As noted in Industry Leaders Magazine (2012):

Consider Ghandi. “Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi, was born an ordinary boy with a determination to excel at what he did. After completing law from London, he became the most important part of the Indian freedom struggle against the colonial rule. His policy of non-violence and protest through civil disobedience eventually succeeded when he led his country to freedom in 1947. His main characteristics were resilience, knowledge, people-skills, motivational approach and leading by example.”

Consider Nelson Mandela. “Nelson Mandela was the first South African president elected in fully democratic elections. Mandela was also the main player in the anti-apartheid movements in the country and served a lengthy prison sentence because of the same. This did not stop Mandela and in fact motivated him to devote his life to uniting his country and he successfully managed to do so after his release from an almost 30-year prison sentence. His main characteristics were his determination, persistence, focus and will.

Consider Julius Ceaser. “Easily one of the greatest military leaders of all time, Caesar was also one of the best political leaders the world has ever seen. He led several campaigns with numerous victories and was single handedly responsible for the expansion of the Roman Empire. He was also responsible for reforming the Roman government and thus laying the foundation to a great empire. His greatest traits were his decisiveness, boldness, eagerness, motivation, opportunism and strategic planning.”

Consider Abraham Lincoln. “The 16th president of the United States is also one of the most well known leaders of all time. He was in office during the American Civil War where he kept the people together and is the only reason that the nation did not break into smaller parts. He also ended slavery in the US by signing the Emancipation Proclamation. His greatest traits were his determination, persistence, beliefs and courage.

Each of these leaders was imperfect and experienced failures, yet each had a tremendous impact on the shape of the today’s world. Would their traits allow them to succeed in Green Digital Age? How well did they each weave their core ideology into their envisioned future? While we do not know the answers to these questions, we do know that each time each of these leaders failed, they considered their failure, lived with the consequences, and developed their next plan to move forward – using this resilience to realize their vision. And we are still talking about them today.

As a CEO finds their authentic best self, one that is true to their values and personality, they must ensure that this best self is authenticated with each message using the ideal digital communication tool available for the chosen moment. If a laser focus on leading a meaningful life is a true value for the CEO, it should come across in each communication for each associate to model the same behavior. If courageous and bold strategic innovation is a critical tenet, that message should be embedded authentically within each discussion – whether it be via email, video, social media, or chat box. Coordinating authentic digital messaging to encapsulate the leadership ideals will create the synergistic flywheel characteristic of our Green Digital organizations.

The Strategic Project Portfolio

While most of us will never be Caesar or Ghandi, guiding principles will take us far in our business quest. An unclouded vision and direction combined with a CEO striving to live his core principles sets an organization off to a strong beginning. A persistent approach can yield historic results. Yet even the clearest vision is not immune to the seismic or subtle shifts of the market. Clear goals help set the path towards any destination with success dependent on disciplined execution to help overcome these shifts – which brings us to our next question.

  • How does a CEO create, leverage, and execute a digitally savvy project portfolio that emanates from the vision in a disciplined fashion?

A disciplined approach does not mean rigidity reigns. A CEO must be able to pivot an approach at the appropriate time. Lack of agility can cause a company to tear itself apart which can manifest with the setting of unattainable goals with slow reaction times in an ineffective effort to adjust to marketplace shifts. Additionally, failure to link agile responses to the overall vision of the organization leads to a floundering result. These corporate failures are full of initiatives without definable or attainable endpoints or are disregarding core principles which leads to an internal dissolution of morale and a unified purpose. An anchored yet fluid business approach is needed to compensate for unexpected barriers.

One aspect of this approach involves a strategic project portfolio that should be routinely reviewed and analyzed for:

  • a risk vs. reward balance,
  • a clear line to the vision and strategy
  • a link to global megatrends where the company is betting its future
  • relevance to the digital technology trends that are shaping our world

The projects that fill the portfolio should include:

  • innovations that drive the company to a greener state based on deficiencies in current technologies (socially and environmentally)
  • a digital component as an aspect of new innovations in legacy companies
  • an additional value generating digital component to a traditional digital offering
  • a game changing cost position offering that meets most value requirements (digital and legacy)
  • a link to customer needs and a willingness to pay

Legacy companies will surround traditional innovations with a digital wrapper. Digital natives will continuously upgrade their offerings or offer new to the world digital possibilities depending on their innovation strategy. The digital savviness of the CEO will set the tone for this approach. Troubled companies who miss these principles will resort to repeated cost cutting measures to generate cash to hide the lack of marketplace defining profitable growth – often a result of a weak project portfolio or poor project management. The circle of failure will continue as the CEO and C-suite team site a bloated cost structure and continue to whittle away at the organization’s talent to solve the firm’s financial issues. While cost control is a useful tool, CEOs must realize that there is unlikely to be a cost cutting measure or immediate strategic move available to offset any self-inflicted set back caused by a drift from vision and values. A healthy vision driven by a deep, layered, and digitally savvy portfolio roadmap is the needed recipe.

Consequently, in the GDA company, we have the following questions that should be answered to shape our portfolio.

  • How do CEOs leverage the digital world to create the ideal strategic project portfolio?
  • How do they ensure that innovative digital components are included in their project portfolio?

The answer is in the data. The proliferation of customer data has changed our approach to business, and using customer data to gather insights can create a robust innovative offering. Similar to employee feedback, digitized customer feedback and process information must be managed and leveraged to ensure an ideal customer experience. This approach combined with an analysis of overall global emerging digital and legacy business trends will guide noncustomer driven research and innovation. The outcome of this data gathering should be a future setting innovation portfolio – frequently assessed and analyzed for risk, relevance, and reward – and examined for its ability to provide a view for what lies ahead for the company. The reimagined and digitally informed project mix will link to the vision and ensure the balanced outcomes of business value, environmental stewardship, and socioeconomic gain.

Let’s explore a company that meets many of these requirements by beginning with their mission. Consider digital native Hewlett Packard’s (HP’s) mission of “creating technology that makes life better for everyone, everywhere” and focus on their newest sustainable laptop line – the Elite Dragonfly HP – possibly the most sustainable laptop in the world that uses recycled plastics (Forbes, Sept 2019). HP has created a product that features “a remarkably light 2 in 1 design” and a “comprehensive array of privacy and security options and buying options” that leaves it ranked #9 in the world of laptops (US News, Mar 2021). We can consider the ergonomic benefits to society of such a design as a benefit to all of us who trapse through airports carrying our devices. More interestingly, when we consider how the HP’s sustainability is objectively viewed, HP ranks third as compared to their competitors in the electronics category on RankaBrand – a website that provides rankings for consumers to use to buy the greenest brands. And even more remarkable is HP’s relationship with Lonely Whale – an NFP organization that is dedicated to stemming the flow of plastics into the ocean (Fast Company, 2021) and has partnered with larger companies who build the use of ocean bound plastics into their supply chain through Lonely Whale’s NextWave Plastics membership organization. Ellen Jackowski, global head of sustainability, strategy, and innovation at HP whole heartedly supports the growth of the reuse of ocean bound plastics in HP’s laptops and expects a usage increase from 7% today to 30% by 2025 by leveraging their partnership with Lonely Whale. She remarks “We are committed to use ocean-bound plastics in our top-line products and continue to innovate creating new types of materials in which they can be used.” Since 2017, Jackowski estimates that HP has processed more than thirty-five million plastic bottles – preventing them from entering the ocean. Certainly, we have a story here that aligns a top new product aligned with a vision that drives sustainability, ergonomics, convenient usability, and revenue.

The Daily Information CEO Challenge

Creating a vison aligned with a supportive project portfolio seems straight forward, even though there are immense challenges embedded in these efforts. What else makes this world so complex for our CEOs? Consider the amount of information that must be digested daily to best understand the direction of the business, the markets, and the world. Our rapidly shifting environment has endless information available to the CEOs who must interpret these shifts and make rapid decisions to manage and adapt to emerging landscapes. CEOs have created visions and strategies to realize, and they and their C-suite teams must quickly execute their respective visions while considering masses of fresh, incongruous data. Often the company strategy must deliver a path to the conversion of a legacy business to its digital form or execute a plan that upgrades and solidifies the strategic competitive advantage of a digital native. But there is more than digital transformation at play here. As CEOs consider their strategic choices, they are relying on endless information sources – verbal commentaries, email, streamed information, texts, chats, tweets, surveys, podcasts, articles, and journals to name a few. With all this information flowing to them daily, the following questions must be considered by our GDA CEOs:

  • what is the integrity of this information?
  • has it been distorted, politicized, or cleaned to the point of inaccuracy?
  • how do leaders keep up with this constant volume of data?
  • which data matters?
  • what is the price of a year, a month or even a day of rumination? Or of ignoring the information?
  • As leaders consider the latest information and wait for additional clarity, how much does the landscape shift again?

A key challenge for the c-suite, executives, and managers is tactical speed of action! Strategic sprints must be decided, organized, and executed, and digital tools applied in shifting areas to accelerate useful information gathering to execute agile responses to a market shift. What a challenge to have to continuously sort through relevant data to ensure a CEO’s vision and strategy is on track or to determine the adjustments needed to realign efforts! All the while their executives have different opinions and plans regarding the ideal execution path, and these divergent thoughts must be managed.

The CEO has a critical role of setting the tempo of decision making and accomplishes this result through a clear focus on the metrics that matter and a simplification of processes and structures to speed decision making (HBR, Dec 2021). To sort through the daily information flow effectively, the CEO must primarily focus on:

  • data that drives key strategic outcomes that transform the business
  • metrics that are set for digital and other investments to ensure that they are impactful
  • clarifying governance expectations to reduce ambiguity and simplify the approval process
  • streamlining internal processes and organizational structures to speed decision making
  • modelling a culture that fails fast, learns quickly, and adapts

As an example, in the banking industry, a bank CEO who implemented a digital customer interface technology ensured effective implementation and use by reporting on three metrics:

  • digital sales as a percentage of total sales
  • percentage of transactions done in branches
  • NPS (Net Promoter Scores)

These metrics provided insights regarding customer usage and retention. When anomalies occurred in any of them, the CEO empowered the relevant business leaders to figure out why (HBR, Dec 2021). Of course, to ensure success of this type of initiative, the needed change management teams had to be deployed before initiative launch to ensure associate buy in to digital transformation as a strategy. Once launched, the CEO routinely focused attention on the incoming digital information that reflected performance until trust was built with the operational team to ensure an effective transformation.

While we do not have concrete results from this example, we can look to other experts to predict the outcomes. The benefit of this type of digital transformation is an improved customer experience. Leading experts such as Deloitte, Accenture and Gartner recommend this approach – because, based on their experience in the banking field, the results provide:

  • A 30% cost reduction attracting new clients
  • A more efficient process of joining (1.5x faster)
  • Increases in revenue of 80% over the first two year

(FinExtra, Aug 2021)

When working on the business, the CEO must ignore frivolous input unrelated to either bringing the vision and strategy alive, focus on critical strategic outcomes, and be ultra-responsive to feedback related to sharing their heart and mind to connect with the rest of the company. The rest of the information must fall to the wayside.

Cultivate and Retain Talent through a Digital Connection

Now imagine we have a CEO who has a resonating vision and strategy, is leading a meaningfully balanced life, endorses a strategic project portfolio informed by data, and effectively manages the daily inflow of information by focusing on its relation to key initiatives and outcomes. An additional aspect of a CEO’s life is to bring winning talent to the organization, and it is a challenge to find and hire high performing associates to bring a vision alive. A scarcity of talent permeates our world today.
The vision and message from the c-suite is one of the most important aspects of attracting and retaining talent – second only to the direct manager’s impact. Key associates are needed to build the capabilities for success. CEOs must consider how to:

• attract talent

• Create an inclusive culture

• Accommodate hybrid work models

• Define the meaning and value of office work

• Foster an engaging work environment for their in-person associates

• Identify talent from pools of remote workers with little corporate face-to-face interaction

• Keep all associates safe – whether at work or at home

Once the key associate is hired, there is an immediate challenge of retention. Remember that our connectedness makes associates much more accessible to recruitment – which presents the even greater challenge of retaining the best talent. Desired higher worker retention levels require leaders to respond to the constant stream of feedback from surveys outlining associates’ state of mind and well-being. Connections to the individual must occur in real time, be authentic, and utilize the digital tools of today. The questions of the day include how do CEOs:

• Inspire and deliver clear communication that motivates engagement in the digital environment?

• Virtually communicate shifts in strategy and results to shareholders and stakeholders while remaining aligned with the vision?

• Embed their authentic selves into each communication?

Leaders must digitize the company by digitizing their communication, understanding digitization, and transforming cultures and roles by exploring evolving digital environments. One key to this digital age is conveying messages that resonate using digital mediums that attain authenticity – connecting to associates’ hearts and minds through a digital experience. The CEO must create an authenticity that glues associates to their messaging – anticipating their story like the next episode of their favorite streaming series – rather than feeling obligated to have to attend another video session.
Let’s explore the digital authenticity required for a vision and strategy to rapidly connect across an organization more deeply. Regardless of preference, digital relationship building will be the status quo moving forward, and CEOs must master this craft by realizing that they are creating authentic virtual selves for their associates to assess – which the associates may or may not be compelled to witness on their computers on a regular basis. And while no CEO will capture the hearts and minds of all associates, it is critical that their messages maximize the number of highly engaged followers to attain the breakthrough results and employee retention year after year. To create a following, CEOs should consider how to communicate in a relevant, engaging manner that is true to their own personality. A recent study conducted in the Chinese start up community, measures the influence of leaders’ digital messaging on employee-startup relationships and organizational citizenship behavior (Science Direct, Nov 2021). Regarding digital messaging by these CEOs, three traits resonated most strongly:

• communication responsiveness

• assertiveness

• authenticity

It should be noted that, in this culture, assertiveness had a much smaller positive impact than communication responsiveness and authenticity, indicating that while strength and conviction are needed, underplaying this strength resonates. A CEO can consider these traits as principles that are useful for their leaders in this region, and an additional question is how to characterize the communication content in an engaging manner. Kailynn Bowling of ChicExecs emphasizes the need to be social – after laying out your vision and strategy – by being responsive to your followers – answering all tags, messages, and mentions while also commenting on your follower’s content and the content of other notable CEOs whose messages resonate (Forbes, June 2021). And consider the authenticity of responses, remembering the messaging that should encompass who the CEO is and what they stand for in each comment. Reemphasize what is important as an individual and how that translates into the vision and strategy of the company. Additionally, CEOs should be open about charitable causes outside of the company and where they may personally or professionally contribute and the impact of that contribution. When CEOs combine a compelling vision, a winning strategy, authentic leadership, and a meaningful digital relationship, they will grow their followers as well as their business.

The CEO Customer Digital Experience

Much of what has been discussed has addressed internal digital CEO authenticity. Now is the time to consider growing the business, securing new customers, and retaining current customers. As a workforce, what does our current day customer interaction look like? It is often a disparate combination of face-to-face interaction combined with virtual connections through digital media or conference calls. Concurrently, data gathering on customer behaviors is embedded increasingly frequently into the customer offering, and the right or privilege to gather and own this data is a hot topic in today’s environment. Both issues must be overcome, as clear customer communication and agreement on how to manage the data in question is needed to deliver the ideal customer experience! At the same time, customer loyalty will be won by delivering on the firm’s ethical and profit centered mission and vision through providing useful and profitable customer offerings, and in return, customers will share their immediate market needs and will offer opportunities for collaboration to continue to benefit from the relationship.

Considering this environment, how does a CEO:

  • keep an eye on digital megatrends to ensure that the company is creating offerings aligned with the evolution of the world?
  • add unique value to the business by leveraging insights from customer data?
  • communicate a culture of trust with the customer to ensure openness in data sharing and analytics which must be a part of any relationship?

If the CEO correctly anticipates these megatrends while executing at the micro level, customer buying behaviors should shift to reinforce the use of the future forward offering. Bets on macro trends should be informed by data driven customer insights – what is happening in the market – with the result being a project portfolio aligned with global trends and derived from data validated by individual customer behaviors. These results are communicated with customers using a consistent and authentic external digital persona combined with the needed face to face interactions.

One example of anticipating and leveraging megatrends is insurance giant Ping An. Ping An is one of the largest insurance groups from a revenue perspective and is a leader in life and general insurance in China. This business began in 1988 as a traditional insurance business and has transformed into a platform-based technology ecosystem (DIA, Feb 2019) that has led to new businesses in telemedicine, healthcare, wealth management, cloud services, and anti-fraud/overbilling protection. Ping An’s Chief Innovation Officer, Jonathan Larsen, comments on how CEO Peter Ma views the future.

“On the one hand, he believes the advent of the digital economy is rendering the capabilities that have made us successful in the past – 1.4M insurance agents, a great brand, a lot of capital – less and less relevant – although these are, of course, critical to our business in the near term. On the other hand, our ability to access data, to be more able to make excellent value out of data to serve our clients’ needs is going to become more relevant. That insight is powering all of our strategies going forward.” (DIA, Feb 2019).

This vision is a clear bet on digital transformation for future growth. So has this approach been effective? Ping An’s annual revenue has grown from $53B in 2015 to $191B in 2020 while reportedly:

  • developing and implementing an AI tool that improves type 2 diabetes compliance by 30%.
  • increasing Chinese telemedicine users to 373 million users in 2020.
  • enabling doctors to shorten diagnosis time from 15 minutes to 15 seconds using their intelligent image analysis system.

From an authentic digital communication perspective, we can consider the comments from Andrew Brodsky who realizes that life is a continuum and CEOs are human – having good and bad moments across their key digital interactions. Even though the sincerity of the CEO message should come across clearly, there are ways to minimize the impact of disappointment, negativity or tragedy that will inevitably cross a CEO’s life when a positive message is required. Brodsky notes (HBR, Jan 2022):

  • If you are communicating authentically,try to use the richest communication medium available (e.g., face-to-face or video conferencing).
  • If you are communicating inauthentically(e.g., you need to suppress emotions not appropriate for an interaction), on average, it appears best to utilize telephone or audio communication in order to appear most authentic.
  • If you have to use email to relay emotions that you want to be perceived as authentic, find a way to make it clear that you didn’t make the choice on purpose, or that the choice was for a positive reason, to help reduce the attribution that it was low effort. The findings from my studies indicate that it isn’t using email that makes emotions seem inauthentic by itself, but rather, that this cost is driven by the recipient believing that you chose to use email. For instance, if you’re congratulating someone on a big promotion, you could tell them that you can’t wait to celebrate in person, but wanted to congratulate them the moment you heard.

While it is reasonable to allow for CEOs to be impacted by life, these simple communication choices provide insight on how to maintain digital authenticity across relationships while concurrently managing the emotions of the day.

Investing in Leaders – the Coaching Journey

Taking a leap into the Digital Age takes courage. And while we have emphasized the importance of an intricately linked value driven vision and strategy, the execution of this strategy is only as good as the quality and speed of the CEO’s decision-making process and the implementation ability of associates. A unique CEO mindset is required that is fearless in nature and based in data to manage risk. Leaders must expect and require a level of failure throughout the organization to reach a new level of achievement in the company. The expected failure should occur quickly on a small scale and be immediately assessed with an iterative plan ready to implement based on what was learned from the failure. However, many CEOs have a paralyzing fear of failure that slows decision making, creates endless dialogue, over complicates decisions, and erodes trust with the c-suite, executive leaders, front line individuals, customers, and other stakeholders alike. While massive failure should be avoided, CEOs must trust their leadership team and associates to make decisions and drive the business in the context of the vision and strategy. This thinking leaves us with the following questions:

  • How does a CEO grow his management during this digital journey?
  • How does a CEO take them through the same learning curve, as they will invariably have similar issues during the digital transformation?
  • How does a CEO build trust that manifests in the management structure to allow leaders on the management team to be fearless yet aligned with the vision?

CEOs must send a message that they trust their C-suite, their executive leaders, and their managers. We know that all leaders have strengths, blind spots, and weaknesses. In the high-pressure corporate world, there must be room for these strengths to be leveraged as well as weaknesses and blind spots to be discovered and managed – allowing room for failure. Gallup’s 2019 state of the American Manager report revealed that:

  • one in two employees has left a job to get away from a manager at some point in their career.
  • less than 10% of working people possess the talent to make them a great manager.

That means there are a lot of bad leaders out there with far-reaching effects past the office walls. (Michael, 2019) All CEOs know this fact and must admit that it exists in their company as well. And then they must do something about it. The good news is that leaders can change, and the CEO must make the decision that developing leaders is a priority. Part of that development is the trust that they must have in their c-suite and executives. Making the decision to invest in coaching allows leaders to work through their blind spots and leverage their strengths. Additional commentary from Expert Executive Coach Jody Michael includes these insights:

“By hiring the best people you can and appreciating them, a leader can keep the engagement and interest in the job high. A good manager trusts his employees to get the work done and checks in throughout the way, so this isn’t just blind trust; it’s verified. Workers want more than just directives from leaders. They want someone to look out for them, to champion them and to provide opportunities to learn, grow and advance. When you achieve that, the relationship becomes about caring and that’s much bigger than just the company.” (Michael, 2019).

In addition to coaching and growing managers to become excellent leaders, CEOs must recognize that each c-suite member, executive and manager will also have a digital presence that must be individual in nature and aligned with who they are as a person. Everyone will benefit from a coach to help them navigate the same digital challenges faced by the CEO in this GDA.

For example, we have discussed the amount of time and energy that the CEO has placed into created digital authenticity and a digital persona based on his social media presence and responses. Each executive, manager and board member will need similar training and investment. Combining this investment with the fact that there is a lack of digital savviness at our executive and board levels re-emphasizes the need for coaching in this area beyond the c-suite. Furthermore, everyone in the company will have to have clear examples to use to authenticate their own digital persona and behavior. Executives and managers will require coaching and training programs to ensure they develop their own authentic digital messages and face to face behaviors. These two views must merge with each other in an ideal fashion so that one does not undermine the other. Executed properly, a consistent and reinforced vision of digital authenticity – reinforced with coaching – will be woven into the values driven vision.

Bringing our Vision Alive

Imagine that we have our c-suite, executive team, and high flyers throughout the organization armed with coaches to support them through the traditional and digital challenges. These leaders are led by a strong ethics infused vision, execute a green digital strategic plan, and live in a culture that encourages experimentation. This experimentation is paired with the expectation that rapid failure in conjunction with agile responses is required to achieve success. Knowing that rapid failure is encouraged, innovation and inspiring digital communication will be explored and mastered – even as it remains a key challenge for each of these individuals. As an authentic person, it is only natural to uncover mistakes in a strategy or execution, and it is important to be able to be publicly authentic when working through these failures – which will make it acceptable for the rest of the organization to fail and respond accordingly when these leaders are struggling. And coaches add a safety net for each of these courageous leaders as they sort through and offer a concrete plan of action to address the initial failures. One of the most engaging times for associates is seeing a leader struggle and then to have a deep desire to help that leader through this challenging time – and they will rally towards that leader, the CEO, and each other. Let’s note the key steps needed to make this picture a reality:

Step 1: Build a vision embedded with your core values, ethics, and aspirations that will successfully lead the company into the GDA. Take the time to uncover your true values through introspection and behavioral examination of current and historical leaders.

Step 2: Implement a strategy that emanates from the vision. Ensure that profit and growth are well balanced by social impact and environmental stewardship when considering strategic choices and outcomes.

Step 3: Develop a project portfolio that prioritizes digital investments around the key strategic strengths of the company. Leveraging digital savviness, use a combination of megatrends and data informed customer insights to construct and manage the strategic project portfolio, and use it as a roadmap for the future of the company. Create a review process that ensures portfolio alignment and adjustment in a shifting marketplace.

Step 4: Execute information management and leading a meaningful life. Determine how to manage the constant flow of input from multiple sources. Choose the input that provides information on the critical aspects of the business to ensure you still have time to lead your most meaningful life and mission. Establish clear governance guidelines, streamline processes, simplify corporate structure so that you can think clearly, execute quickly and delegate decisions at least as fast as the speed of business.

Step 5: Deliver inspiring digital authenticity and the related digital persona and approach that connects with talented recruits, associates, customers, shareholders, and stakeholders. Re-emphasize the core values from the company vision and re-enforce them in behaviors and messaging. Determine which digital tools to use to communicate and inspire on a regular basis. Create a plan to gather feedback and respond to feedback from each entity – communicating shifts in strategy, approach, and outcomes. Connect with individuals throughout this landscape to retain talent, gather useful information, and connect with stakeholders. Make insightful choices on communication mediums based on the CEO’s state of mind.

Step 6: Invest in coaches for the management team. Insist on the development of managers and invest in them to become excellent leaders using a coaching program aligned with the vision and strategy of the organization. In additional to traditional coaching topics, include the development of digital authenticity, digital savviness, and a digital persona that reflects the core values of the individual without straying from the core value of the company. Leverage this approach to maximize engagement, minimize employee churn, identify high flyers in leadership, and accelerate results.

As we consider the steps required to take to lead a company to unforeseen heights in the GDA, the bigger challenge is finding the CEOs who are willing and able to take on this challenge. For those CEOs who have already accepted this role, we are relying on you to lead our world through our current environment into this emerging age. For those of you who have yet to accept, we welcome you to join us on this journey to have influence as one of the future forward leaders of our time. Together, each of us will add energy to our flywheel and grow into our new beginning.

In the immortal word of Rumi, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” Join me in this change!


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