How new leaders can spur success in the new digital normal

Strategy and Digital Transformation

Photo of Ian Sheen

Ian Sheen

Technical Lead - Strategy and Transformation, Telstra Purple LinkedIn

Starting a new leadership role is always a bit challenging and scary, although when you add a global pandemic into the mix, it’s a whole different kettle of fish.

Organisations are starting to realise that ‘the COVID way of working’ isn’t just a single blip within time, it’s a new reality that involves hybrid ways of working and permanent investments in digital transformation to support it.

This is a daunting prospect if you’re only just finding your feet as a technology leader at a new organisation. Even if you’re a seasoned CIO or CTO, the old digital roadmaps won’t cut it when you’re navigating a completely different post-COVID organisational structure.

However, this doesn’t mean technology leaders can’t still have an immediate and profound organisational impact. By carving out a set of priorities and working harder to establish relationships, new technology leaders can still lead positive transformations of technology, people and processes.

This is one of the topics that was discussed at Telstra Purple’s most recent ‘new-in-role’ roundtable for freshly appointed technology leaders. These events are catered on for executives that have been in their role for less than a year, inspiring an open and honest discourse about important challenges under Chatham house rules.

The challenges that COVID brings

Man typing on laptop

Virtual interactions are great for touching base and seeing people when they’re ‘on’, but it’s more difficult to spot those unofficial interactions that take place after a meeting or within personal conversations.

This makes establishing relationships more difficult, as you can’t engage with someone on a personal level.  Video calling feels far more formal than simply tapping someone on the shoulder and asking them about their work.

“It’s not the meetings you have, it’s the interactions that you don’t have,” one participant noted. “The little chats at the coffee station in the kitchen, or as you’re walking down the hall. These really help in relationship building and opening doors that would ordinarily remain undiscovered.”

These more ‘unofficial’ interactions have traditionally been great for maintaining oversight over how your teams are performing as well. It’s much harder to spot the people who are having problems when you’re not present physically, and can’t necessarily tell when people are falling behind.

As a technology executive, it’s also a challenge to communicate the more technical elements of strategy and programme execution when your only interaction is through a screen.

“How can you define the technology when you can’t draw it out,” an attendee noted. “The easiest way to get people to interact is to get them to tell you that you’re wrong, drawing models and plans on the board for them to chime in.”


Focus on people

Group of employees remote working at a table together

While it might be more difficult to build relationships in a post-COVID world, it’s certainly not impossible. An important area to focus on is investing time in people and going out of your way to establish connections.

This starts with finding out who are the best people to interact with, whether they’re key stakeholders, influential changemakers, or technology champions. Leaders need to build their A-team – as they would previously – and find out what skills they need to get things going.

This is critical for attaining ‘buy-in’ for your strategy, as you’ll need to present the board with a story that’s already backed by important people at the company.

If your organisation is completely virtual, this might mean travelling relatively long distances to have one-on-one conversations with people. This isn’t something that can be put off until ‘after COVID’, as these interactions need to happen as close to your starting date as possible.

“Think of relationship building as a project within itself,” said one participant. “Build relationships with the right people and just start with listening. In the early days you have an opportunity to get out and meet people, and find out what’s on their minds… It’s very hard when you’re online as we are now, but you’ve got to find a way. There always is.”

It’s easy for COVID to spur laziness with stakeholder management, as many executives will just revert to only seeing the people that want to see them. It’s important to break this mould if you want to set yourself apart.

This is especially true for technology executives, as they are the ones who will be making the most important structural changes in the next few years.

It’s important to remember that the opportunity to start as a fresh technology leader at a new organisation is exciting and valuable. You’re going to be bringing a fresh new perspective and it’s important to make a powerful first impression that transcends through the years.



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