Making sense of digital technologies can feel like learning a foreign language, but C-suite leaders can’t afford to let anything get lost in translation.   

To stay ahead, leaders need to be able to analyze the value of emerging technologies, engage in discussions on their potential benefits, and strategize their integration for organizational growth and innovation.  

No one knows this better than the executives at the World’s Most Admired Companies, who say tech adoption is their number one organizational lever for growth and tech innovation is among their top three innovation priorities.  

The leaders behind the World’s Most Admired know the importance of digital fluency—a skill that's never been more essential in the C-suite. 

Digital Fluency vs. Digital Literacy 

Like many executives, you probably have some digital literacy, which means you have a basic understanding of what digital tools are and how to use them in your day-to-day work.  

But what senior executives really need today is digital fluency and a digital-first mindset.  

This means you would have the confidence to develop and contribute to strategies in which these tools will be used to develop the business. You’d understand how digital innovations could be used to transform customer and employee experiences, for example, or how to leverage digital tech to help grow the business or improve margins. 

Without digital fluency, you risk giving the green light to technology investments that won’t deliver what the business needs. 

In most organizations, there will be managers or frontline employees with more digital expertise and hands-on experience. But if you're a leader who is digitally fluent, you’ll know how to ask the right questions to help you make more informed decisions. 

“These tools are being introduced at an ever-increasing speed. Leaders with digital fluency will understand what the technology’s impact could be now and in the future, and how it could reinvent the way the organization does business,” says Wil Schoenmakers, Head of Global Consumer Consulting at Korn Ferry.

“True fluency goes beyond being able to speak stock phrases or read a language. It’s about being able to use that language to tell your own stories. For C-suite leaders, that means articulating a vision for digital investment.”

Digital Fluency: Getting Started 

Some companies are now insisting that at least half of their C-suite leaders and board members are digitally fluent, says Schoenmakers. 

Here are some ways senior executives can begin cultivating what Schoenmakers describes as a “change-ready mindset” to become more technologically fluent and help their organizations leverage growth through technology. 

1 Study Your Peers 

Seeing is believing, says Wolfgang Bauriedel, Senior Client Partner with Korn Ferry’s Technology and Digital practice. Rather than try to study digital technology in theory, he recommends seeking out CEOs and senior leaders at non-competitive organizations to hear how they’re using these tools in practice.  

Ask these peers not only where they’ve applied the technology, but how much human intervention is still required, if any. How have these tools reduced errors? What can you do to maximize the value?  

This doesn’t necessarily mean taking a tour of Silicon Valley firms. Bauriedel points out that those startups can have a much different mindset.  

“Have the conversation with other ‘legacy’ companies,” he says. “That’s where we’ve seen the journey get really interesting.” 

2 Take a Small Step 

It’s easy for C-suite leaders to feel overwhelmed when innovations like generative AI emerge, says Stefanie Kutteh, a Senior Client Partner in Korn Ferry’s Global Technology and Digital practice. The key is to start slow and small, perhaps by running mini pilot projects within a subset of your employee base to gain insights. Offering AI as a pilot to a small group of developers who work closely with one leader, for example, could show how the technology can help write code.  

“Rather than applying the technology across the organization, you can start where it feels most practical and then build outwards,” says Kutteh. 

3 Appoint Reverse Mentors 

Chances are you have employees whose digital fluency is already high. Bauriedel suggests pairing them with C-suite leaders to help upskill them. 

This approach is being used by some of Schoenmakers’s clients with great success. “Senior leaders are in meetings all day and quite often don’t have time to independently familiarize themselves with some of this new technology,” he says. A tech-savvy reverse mentor can jump in to bring them up to speed. 

This setup also benefits the more junior employee, who might be getting their first exposure to senior leadership. 

4 Emphasize Governance and Guardrails 

Leveraging technology for business growth must be done with care and attention to any potential downsides. Becoming digitally fluent is as much about identifying the risks as reaping the rewards.  

The C-suite is ultimately accountable for business performance, and part of that accountability is knowing how to conduct due diligence in terms of technology risks.  

Get clear answers on the impact of digital investments on IT security, for example. What will digitization mean in terms of data privacy? Discuss where employees might need guardrails in the form of policies or additional training to avoid negative consequences. Have procedures in place to combat worst-case scenarios.  

“You have to be able to plan for whatever might transpire,” says Bauriedel. 

5 Prioritize Progress, Not Perfection 

True fluency goes beyond being able to speak stock phrases or read a language. It’s about being able to use that language to tell your own stories.  

For C-suite leaders, that means articulating a vision for digital investment that connects to growth metrics, such as increased output and revenue.  

“A lot of the World's Most Admired Companies are actually taking a more incremental approach to technological change,” says Schoenmakers. “Think about that balance between seizing the opportunity on the one hand, but then making sure you really have the organizational capabilities on the other. And you need to be sure you’re not stretching your people or organization too much as you try to drive this transformation.”

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