Who Should Lead the Digital Transformation Process?

Many companies are looking for a leader to spearhead their digital transformation.

But who should that person be?

Based on our research, there are three primary models to choose from, and each has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Let’s explore them more closely.

Table of Contents

Three Digital Transformation Leadership Models

The Executive-Led Conventional Model

Typically, when we think of who’s in charge of a digital transformation initiative, we assume that the role will be filled by a senior executive, such as the CIO or CEO.

After all, digital transformation remains a top priority for CIOs, ranking even higher than cyber security in some surveys.

In many cases, the executive-led model makes sense, as key executives have the ultimate authority within the organization and are responsible for making sure that digital transformation efforts align with overall business strategy.

A CIO, for example, can provide critical insights into how new technologies can be leveraged to drive business value. They also have a deep understanding of the company’s existing IT infrastructure and how it can be adapted to support new digital initiatives.

Similarly, CEOs are responsible for setting the overall direction for the company, managing innovation cycles, developing key talent, and ensuring that all departments are working together towards common goals.

However, there are some drawbacks to having a senior executive in charge of digital transformation.

For one, the scope of a C-suite executive’s digital objectives and responsibilities is broad, and they may not have the time or bandwidth to give the initiative the attention it needs.

Additionally, they may not be as familiar with the latest technology trends and innovations compared to someone who works in a specific department or field, such as operations, customer service, marketing, accounting, IT or HR.

And finally, there’s always the risk that a CEO or other senior executive will be more focused on short-term results rather than long-term success. This could lead to decisions being made that prioritize quick wins over sustainable improvements.

The Middle Management Model

In some cases, it may make more sense to have someone from the middle management ranks leading digital transformation efforts.

As companies create new digital transformation job titles and roles, these positions are typically filled by people who already have experience working in both business and technology, often with subject matter expertise when it comes to a type of technology or business role (i.e. data engineering, agile methodologies, cloud adoption, change management, and more).

And if you’ve visited an online job board or career site recently, you’ll notice a lot more openings for these types of positions, including digital transformation specialists, heads, strategists, leads, and more.

For example, a company might create a new position of “digital transformation manager” within the company.

Whether as a departmental or company-wide role, she would be responsible for leading digital transformation initiatives, implementing technology, setting and tracking digital transformation KPIs, and working with other departments to ensure that they are aligned with overall business goals.

Basically, the advantage of having someone from the middle management ranks leading digital transformation is that they are likely to have a better understanding of both the technology and the business.

They will also have a better appreciation for the day-to-day operational realities that need to be considered when implementing new technologies.

For example, as this article notes, middle managers have a unique vantage point that enables them to drive change within organizations.

Specifically, an employee in a mid-level management or digital supervisory role can maintain channels of communication between employees and leadership, encourage employee participation and collaboration, and have direct input on how digital implementations are proceeding, affecting employee workflow and (hopefully) creating business value.

Of course, there are some potential drawbacks to this approach as well.

For one, the middle manager will not have the same level of authority as a senior C-suite executive. This makes the chain of command less clear and, ultimately, could make it difficult to get buy-in from other departments or implement changes that require cross-departmental collaboration.

Additionally, in some cases, the middle manager may lack the high-level vision or strategic thinking that’s needed to successfully navigate a digital transformation.

The Grassroots Model

Finally, a company can also look to its front-line employees to lead digital transformation.

This approach is often referred to as the “grassroots model” because it relies on employees taking initiative and driving change from the ground up.

These employees are the lifeblood of your company; the ones dealing directly with clients and customers, building and fixing products, managing daily workflows, and much more.

In many cases, changes in technology – including new tools and processes – will have a direct impact on their job functions.

And they will have a deeper understanding of how these changes will affect the company.

So, it makes sense that employees at this level should have a direct role in leading a digital transformation within your company.

There are a few advantages to this approach.

For one, if you’re working with existing staff, it can be a more cost-effective way to get started with digital transformation since you won’t need to create as many new positions or hire additional staff.

Additionally, employees who are already familiar with the company’s culture and operations will have a better understanding of what needs to be done to support a successful digital transformation, including critical daily job functions and, importantly, technology training needs for new and existing employees.

Finally, this approach can help to engage and motivate employees, who may feel more invested in the initiative if they are leading it themselves.

However, there are also some potential drawbacks to this approach.

For one, it can be more difficult to ensure that everyone is on the same page and working towards common goals.

Additionally, without a clear leader in charge, it may be more difficult to make decisions or course-correct if things are not going as planned.

So, Who Should Lead Your Company’s Digital Transformation? (Factors to Consider)

We’ve laid out three different scenarios for choosing a digital transformation leader: the executive, middle-manager, and grassroots models.

Each has its pros and cons.

That’s why the best approach is to integrate all three levels of leadership when driving digital change:

  • High-level strategic thinking and planning at the C-suite or executive level
  • Team building, implementation and communication at the mid-level
  • Hands-on technical application, feedback and training at the grassroots level

This is an ideal scenario, with a clearly defined leadership model and buy-in from different levels and departments.

But, as we know, that’s often an unrealistic model for many companies, especially smaller businesses.

If you’re having trouble choosing a digital transformation leadership model, consider the following factors:

Scope of the Transformation

If you are planning a large, disruptive change to the company’s operating model, involving a cross-functional shift, then you will need someone with both the authority and the ability to lead such a transformation.

It will likely start the top with a CEO, CIO or CDO (chief digital officer). A CEO or other senior executive will typically have the necessary authority, but they may not have the time or bandwidth to lead a complex, multi-year initiative.

In this case, it may make more sense to appoint someone from the middle management ranks to lead the transformation.

However, if the digital transformation is more modest in scope and only involves a single department or function, then it may be possible to appoint a department lead or subject matter expert.

Size of the Company

The size of your company will also play a role in determining who should lead digital transformation.

In a large company, it is often necessary to have a dedicated team or individual leading the initiative. This is because there are likely to be multiple stakeholders involved, each with their own objectives and agendas.

Additionally, a large company is more likely to have the resources needed to support a dedicated digital transformation team.

In a small company, on the other hand, it may be possible for the CEO or another senior executive to lead the initiative themselves.

This is because there are likely to be fewer stakeholders involved and the initiative will be less complex. Additionally, a small company may not have the resources needed to support a dedicated team.

Digital Maturity

Another factor to consider is the digital maturity of the company.

For example, companies that are just starting to dip their toes into digital transformation may not be ready to commit to a large-scale, centralized transformation effort.

In these cases, it may be better to start small and decentralize responsibility for digital transformation. This will allow the company to experiment and learn as they go, without making too many big-changes all at once.

In this case, front-line employees can lead incremental efforts to adopt technology and apply it to different processes and operational workflows.

On the other hand, companies that are further along in their digital transformation journey may be ready to commit to a more centralized effort in order to become less siloed and more efficient across the organization.

This is often the perfect opportunity for assigning someone at the digital transformation manager or specialist level.

Team Makeup

Finally, the makeup of your team will also play a role in determining who should lead digital transformation.

If you have a team of experts with experience in digital transformation, then it may make sense to appoint a team lead or project manager.

However, if you do not have any experts on your team, then it may be necessary to appoint someone from the senior management ranks to lead the transformation.

Final Thoughts

To recap, many companies consider one of three leadership models for digital transformation, including the executive-led, middle-management, and front-line leadership models.

While an integrated approach, combining all three models is preferable, it’s not always an option.

When choosing a path to follow, factors such as the size of your company, the digital maturity of your company, and the makeup of your team will all play a role in determining who should lead the digital transformation process.

If you are starting a large, disruptive change to the company’s operating model, involving a cross-functional shift, then you will need someone with both the authority and the ability to lead such a transformation from the top.

However, if you are more modest in scope and only involve a single department or function, then it may be possible to appoint a department lead or subject matter expert.

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