Digital Disruption and how to adapt as a leader

Digital is now disrupting society on every level, changing the nature of work itself.

Last month, Global Women’s Breakthrough Leaders module zeroed in on Digital Disruption, bringing in an array of world-class experts to speak on the topic.

We asked Sandy Burgham, director of leadership development for Global Women, for her thoughts on the topic. Burgham’s portfolio of interests includes being an independent director of convenience technology company

GW: You added digital disruption to the programme last year, then ramped it even further this year. Why is it so important on a leadership programme?

SB: It’s fundamental to leadership. Even to say “digital disruption” seems inappropriate – that ship has sailed. Digital has already fundamentally changed every category and industry and if it hasn’t, change will be coming your way soon.

What we explored in the module was the ambiguity that a digital context creates, and we were particularly interested in how customers are driving change. Digital is forcing leaders to be hands on, agile, flexible. We live in times of rapid prototyping and fast failing – and embracing experimentation and accepting failure quickly is still foreign to many leaders and companies.

GW: You had a full two days of workshops and speakers including Global Women and other world-class New Zealand players in the digital space – what were some highlights?

SB: Claudia Batten spoke about her squiggly line philosophy, itself challenging linear models of career development, before showcasing how the concept of gamification has developed to the point where it has been mainstreamed in many ways. Frances Valintine characteristically challenged the thinking around the future of education and Vic Crone shared not only her journey to the helm of Xero New Zealand but also her exciting work with Lillian Grace (CEO WikiNZ) in exploring a vision for New Zealand. We also had the privilege of Sara Clemens, Chief Strategy Officer from Pandora, skyping in on day two.

GW: It’s all changing so fast – how can we as business leaders constantly ensure we move with the times?

SB: We are all different as leaders, but if you are not hands-on involved in digital it is hard to see how one can keep abreast of how consumers are moving. Myself, I am a board director and shareholder of convenience technology company This started as a small side interest but it has now evolved to a key interest of mine. It has helped up-skill me in understanding the drive to mobile platforms and of course the rapid and massive uptake in on-demand services driven off apps.

For those who want to move with the times I’d be seeking out opportunities to get involved in tech businesses and start-ups, if you don’t have that opportunity through your corporate role.

The other thing is reverse mentoring, that is, leaders making sure they have two-way mentoring with someone in their 20s – not an intolerant family member! Often mature business people think that they have a lot to give younger business people, when in fact it may be the reverse.

Finally, there is nothing like being there. Global Women did a field trip to San Francisco last year which I attended where we had the opportunity to visit Twitter, Google and other places. Get over to Silicon Valley, talk to the great New Zealanders over there, get amongst it.

GW: What lessons can we as leaders learn from Silicon Valley and the way that tech community does business?

SB: A key theme of the module from all speakers was about embracing risk. Kiwi companies are risk adverse and yet the digital space calls for a risk mindset. Ask any tech entrepreneur – New Zealand investors are gun-shy of investing in digital “plays” that they don’t understand. Which is a pity really as many are not that digitally inclined themselves.

GW: What else does New Zealand need, to encourage innovation and be ‘world class digital’?

SB: Create a place where it can happen. In last year’s Global Women field trip to San Francisco, Associate Professor Margaret O’Mara told us it’s important to align ‘place’ with innovation. This means physical spaces – including academic institutions – becoming corporate campuses for knowledge workers. She said Silicon Valley is unique in its spirit of “meritocracy and opportunity” plus its proximity of innovative institutions such as Stanford to the entrepreneurial ecosystem.