It may be a cliché, but the assertion that everything in business changes kaleidoscopically perfectly describes today’s global economy. While rigid and entrenched business models are rapidly becoming a thing of the past, the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation to change everything has forced contemporary leaders to face a host of new challenges. In the digital age, business leaders must be prepared to reset their habits and views continuously.
Today, one of the key characteristics of the business environment is its plasticity: customer behaviors, data flows, and political and economic conditions are constantly changing and evolving unpredictably. Uncertainty, and its attendant discomforts is the new normal. No managers, business owners or employees can (or should) be confident that what happened yesterday will happen tomorrow, or even that today’s strategy will be appropriate to tomorrow’s conditions. This lack of confidence poses a challenge for business executives and other leaders. What can they do to gain a sense of power over the organizations they manage? How can they regain a fundamental sense of control in an age defined by changeability?
In today’s world, leaders must understand that:
Everything is digital
A mere decade ago, business owners learned about the importance of displaying their products on the internet. They realized that having a well-designed website was essential for capturing the customers who prefer to shop in the comfort of their homes. But this web presence was viewed as an enhancement, an add-on to traditional sales channels. Marketers still relied heavily on tested and proved offline tools, such as surveys and mystery shoppers to identify customer needs.
No more. Technology is no longer an accessory. Every business is a digital business. Big data, cloud computing, social media, mobile apps and automated marketing have taken over. They are all deployed to conduct a variety of transactions and make purchases. The line between the offline and online worlds has blurred, if not vanished entirely. Anyone who aspires to run an organization must realize and accept this as a fact of life. Only then will they be able to build credibility in the eyes of their co-workers, customers and competitors.
In Poland, few managers and CEOs today inherited companies that were technologically advanced. Local enterprises, set up a dozen or so years ago, had to undergo profound overhauls to be able to compete successfully with global players that employ the latest management methods. Companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Uber were born digital, never used conventional tools, and these and similar digital natives have been setting the new industry standards; other businesses have had to measure themselves against the benchmarks they have established. As a result, leaders developing new business strategies need to bear in mind that the technology departments they task with building and supporting digital processes across their organizations will define their success (or their lack of it). Accordingly, business leaders must include technology experts when making key decisions, as they are the people most knowledgeable about the latest tools and how they are used globally. Today’s leaders need to understand that although technology exploration may be resource-intensive, neither competitiveness nor growth can be achieved without them.
They must watch the customer
The founder of the global shopping platform Alibaba.com has said, “We put customers first, employees second, and shareholders only third.”
That’s the way it has to be. Today’s customers are merciless, unforgiving, and empowered to express and act on their displeasure. They have no tolerance for slip-ups, slow service or outdated product ranges. They do not care to know that the procedures required to satisfy their needs take a great deal of time, effort and money to put in place. Once a new shopping model appears that allows customers to place their orders, pay and get their product within minutes, that model is demanded, unconditionally. Providers cannot negotiate those terms. Customers raised on global online stores rather than shopping malls vote for that model with their wallets.
What lessons can the modern leader learn from this? No matter how good and convincing your ideas may be, and how much money you have invested in developing your business, you are bound to fail unless you accept that the customer is theprimum mobile, the center of the business universe, the alpha and omega. Therefore, one of the guiding principles of public relations to which modern leaders should adhere is to cater humbly and happily to any customer expectations. This is especially true when it comes to acquiring the new customers every business needs to grow. As Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has said: “If your customer base is aging with you, then eventually you are going to become obsolete or irrelevant. You need to be constantly figuring out who your new customers are and what you are doing to stay forever young.”
Speed is of the essence
Leaders must stay abreast of market developments and see their companies through the eyes of their customers. While opinions about product and services used to spread slowly, giving one time to reflect, today even a small Facebook post, or tweet, may swiftly, cause a major crisis and require a massive PR or crisis communication response.
Leaders must accept that changes at any echelon of their organizations may become vital within the next five minutes. Companies that are slow to make decisions and that take too long to muse over the changes they should make are likely to end up being relegated to the sidelines. Therefore, digital age leaders must learn to make decisions faster. This obviously involves stress and risk-taking, but there is no way around it. The market belongs to those who know that when it comes to adjustments in one’s company, every minute counts.
There are many voices, all worth listening to
Given the extent and breadth of ongoing change, one person cannot keep up. Leaders must listen to the opinions of all members of their teams or risk losing touch with reality. If their co-workers insist that an idea is not going to fly, the leader should seriously reconsider his or her plans. Listening to trusted experts who use well-grounded arguments is not a sign of weakness; on the contrary, leaders capable of acknowledging they do not have all the answers are more valuable to their companies than autocrats.
Rapid decision-making requires not only intuition but also the ability to use information and information-processing tools. Digital age leaders should learn about digital technologies and the possibilities they offer by using them, and by valuing all new data sources, including comments from internet users of their products and services. Those data flows are just as (if not more) valuable as specialized data reserved for internal circulation.
Change is not always popular
Advances in automation may benefit companies in many ways, allowing them to achieve goals faster, more cheaply, and often better, too. Advanced technologies can alter a company’s business model and product range, as well as affect customer behaviors. However, they can also disrupt the functioning of an organization, and even change the rules of the game for an entire industry.
The people who consider following the latest technologies to be their top priority find technological advances very exciting. However, lower-level managers and non-managerial workers often are much less enthusiastic; they are all-too-aware of the disruptive potential of these tools, especially as regards job loss. Leaders, especially those that run tech companies, must learn to talk about the importance of new technologies for their businesses without threatening their employees’ security. It will take time for a company to benefit from process automation and become more efficient. In the meantime, executives will have to confront mistrustful managers who, rightly or wrongly, wonder about whether their project may eventually put them out of a job.
You can’t go it alone
Digital age leaders cannot afford to waste time resenting the complex and unpredictable nature of today’s market. As trends become more volatile, customers more whimsical and technologies more all-important, it is going to become harder to construct a complete picture of the operating landscape in your mind. It will therefore be more important than ever for leaders to surround themselves with competent people who work well together. A close-knit team and a clear vision of what one strives to achieve — as well as a great deal of humility and flexibility — can help leaders grow their organizations and drive their businesses towards success.