Soccer team in a huddle

Why Skippers Would Make Great CEOs

Feature Article | August 31, 2017 by Daniel Renkel

Being the leader of an organization can be overwhelming, especially when you are steering your crew into uncharted waters.

Many large companies are currently facing the rough waters of digital transformation, which demands bold measures led from the very top of the ranks if chances for success are to be increased.

Business First, Technology Second

Contrary to belief, technology is simply an enabler for new business opportunities. As Carsten Linz, head of the SAP Center for Digital Leadership, already put it: “Don’t digitize the past, innovate for the future!” Leaders who seek for the fast fix for current problems around their technology landscape have it often backward. Their understanding of digital transformation is the following: Take a technology and marry it with a current problem –this however is the fastest way to stand still under the illusion of moving forward.

The real value lies in looking at business problems, understanding the opportunities around a business model transformation and then evaluating how technology can enable the realization of this step change.

Key to Success: Agility and Boldness

The fact that there are hungry startups that pivot their business models faster than a Fortune 500 CEO can assemble a leadership meeting makes it quite obvious why agility is a success factor. An executive study conducted by SAP and Oxford Economics shows that 62% of leading organizations have already created agile teams, a figure estimated to rise to 82% over the next two years.

However, implementing any agility measurements without a culture of innovation is unlikely since the notion of being innovative is to be continually on the lookout for ways of improvement. As soon as setup changes have been successfully implemented it is up to the top management around the CEO to lead by example.

The following three rules are guidelines for bold CEOs.

  • Use the environment for orientation but stay true to your course: Ideally the vision of the CEO is carved in stone in the vision statement of the corporation and made public within the workforce. By doing so, every employee knows where the route is headed. This destination can and must be updated from time to time by understanding what the market is doing. However, staying true to your course is key to gain trust and loyalty from your employees.
  • Don’t rely on just one ship: If you want to increase the chances of reaching your destination you better not be placing all your bets on a single ship. Distribute the risk and test different routes with several vessels. New ideas come fast and go even quicker. This is in the very nature of innovation. Studies have shown that out of every 1000 ideas only one becomes a success – with business value that will offset the cost of the other 999.
  • Recruit a talented crew: Steering a boat in rough waters is not a one-man job. You need a talented crew that you can trust blindly. The same goes for the undertaking of digitally transforming your organization. Tech-savvy employees are the foundation that will enable a transformation. Capable leaders that communicate forward the commands and enable and motivate their deckhands. They are the drivers of the transformation projects and initiatives.

Agility and boldness – two aspects that can decide whether an organization’s digital transformation becomes a historic success or a crash and burn. In summary, agility is the key factor for setting the scene and getting the organization in a fast-paced and quick-adjusting working mode. To follow-through on the initiatives and make the corporate vision a reality is the leaders’ job who therefore needs a great portion of boldness.

That said, it becomes clear that a few sailing lessons with an experienced skipper might be a good fun part for a leadership offsite meeting.


About the SAP Center for Digital Leadership

As a leading digital pioneer, the SAP Center for Digital Leadership helps CxO customers and their organizations to navigate their digital transformation and lead with innovation. Based on SAP’s internal digital transformation learnings, the research agenda and meetings with more than 150 CxO customers per year, the center provides leaders with best practices for leading digital transformation.

The network and partner ecosystem represents today’s and tomorrow’s leaders in digital business. Partners like European Space Agency and Wacom trust the center and jointly create digital open ecosystems.

For more information, visit www.sap.com/digitalleadership.

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