Bridging a digital divide

To thrive in disruptive times, companies can’t just chase tech “unicorns,” Korn Ferry’s Kai Hammerich says.


Kai Hammerich is office managing director, Copenhagen, Board Services, EMEA.

Our cars are on the brink of driving themselves. Our refrigerators tell us when we need to go grocery shopping. Our kids have spent the summer, finally, playing outdoors as we wanted–but only to chase fantasy characters with smart phones. Technology is so integral to our lives, why, only now, are companies across all sectors being exhorted to go digital, do digital, or be digital?

The digital revolution under way is as significant as electricity’s advent. Businesses are racing to thrive in the face of sweeping digitization, and they’re seeking visionary leadership to help them do so. But this change demands a frustratingly rare skill set, new Korn Ferry Institute research has found. Leaders likely to succeed in corporate environments possess very different profiles compared to those who succeed in a pure-play, born-digital firm.

Change-management skills are critical for any traditional company digitally evolving. Leaders must create a strong digital vision, communicate with impact, organize work differently, and act before having certainty. Most key: They must be able to finish what they start. Launching transformations requires courage and impeccable timing. Once a business model is changed, it cannot be returned to its former state.

The rare—and expensive—ideal candidate to lead a digital transformation must possess a mix of both skill sets and a respect for both what was and what will be. Although companies envision a scenario of stealing talent from Google, Facebook, or other top tech enterprises and getting the new unicorn-like leaders to execute a digital reorganization in a snap, people are not plug-and-play devices.

Digital natives often have deep, niche expertise. They tend to be agile, quick learners, and 20% more likely than counterparts to score high in flexibility and adaptability. They live in a trial-and-error world with a guiding idea of “Fail fast, learn fast.” That perspective may disturb others in companies that have spent 30 years refining a zero-error culture using Lean and continuous improvements. Other, pure-play digital practices may also jar those more comfortable in the corporate world. Born-digital organizations often have a culture where testing in real time on real customers is the norm; digital natives can swear by the supremacy of the algorithm rather than the power of relationships.

To succeed in complex corporations where their talents may be desperately needed, digital natives benefit from guidance and support, particularly from senior colleagues. That’s because corporations can be alien to them; they are challenged to navigate their rules without losing the skills that made them successful elsewhere. They may struggle to deliver sustainable change because they lack large-scale change-management experience as well as the ability to build relationships in a complex matrix and to learn the art of influence over rational logic.

In contrast, corporate leaders—experienced in incremental, internally validated progress—tend to navigate well change-management and cultural aspects of transformation. They manage complexity. They’re 28% more likely to outscore digital natives in building relationships. They can influence key stakeholders to embed sustainable change. So while firms may look to Silicon Valley for digital expertise, they also may find that many of the right capabilities and mindsets already exist and can be developed from within. But they must be clear on what capabilities and skills their unique circumstances demand.

As Korn Ferry research shows, internal candidates are cheaper and less risky than externals. Internal candidates know the culture and have found ways to make it work, changing it from within. It makes sense for organizations to focus on existing digital capabilities—which most companies are unaware of—and to identify talent that can be developed to lead a digital transformation.

Companies also may find that a short-term hybrid works best, bringing in digital natives with cutting-edge ideas and practices, and ensuring they work closely with rising, internal talent with strong technology capacities that can be developed. Digital natives may, as they tend to, move on in relentless pursuit of a novel challenge. But they can leave companies and teammates farther down the road to digital evolution.

This, too, demands leadership and great skill from the top. Companies will thrive in the digital age when their highest executives recognize that they must deal with new, diverse talent in a two-way relationship, each side learning and sharing with the other. Both sides will need each other to drive digital transformation in a traditional company.