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How to build a digital transformation dream team

5 min read


Digital transformation is at the top of many organizations’ to-do lists. It is a lofty, and necessary, objective, but like any process of true transformation, it’s also complex.

Harvard Business Review, in fact, identified nine discrete elements of digital transformation. While I don’t disagree, my experience has led me to develop my own short list of make-or-break factors that determine an initiative’s success. At the top of that list is a dedicated digital transformation team.

The digital transformation team includes four components:

  • Digital leader
  • Digital tiger team
  • Executive sponsor
  • Digital advisory council

The digital leader is the visionary, strategist, and owner of the project. This person should be senior enough to bring significant experience, authority, and respect to the table. That typically translates to at least a director-level role, more often VP, and sometimes C-level, although it varies by organization.

Smaller and more traditional businesses usually pull the digital leader from their existing ranks. Marketing is the most common business unit, but the role can also originate in IT or operations. His or her title may already reflect the current imperative — VP, Digital Strategy, e.g. — or digital may be a new “hat” to wear. In either case, the digital leader must be empowered with the time and resources to be fully devoted to the cause.

For larger organizations, this single-mindedness demands an entirely new role: the chief digital officer, or business transformation officer. The former is typically hired in-house, while the latter is often a consultant. Creating a dedicated position affords many benefits, including a “clean slate,” clear mandate, and sometimes a new and significant slice of budget. But while CDOs and BTOs are a strong symbol of the company’s commitment to digital, they are not a guarantee of success (or failure.)

A successful digital leader relies less on title and more on passion. He or she must be able to navigate across business units, to understand and articulate the many aspects of digital transformation, and see both the forest and the trees. The digital leader should inspire up and down the ladder, from team members to executives. Strategic vision and tactical know-how are equally critical to keep a laser focus on why transformation is so important, and what it takes to get there.

The digital tiger team supports the digital leader. Ideally comprising five to 10 team members from across business units, the tiger team owns the on-the-ground execution of the leader’s strategy. IT, marketing, operations and finance should all be represented. Specific skill sets from within these groups can be particularly helpful: development and enterprise architecture in IT; brand, Web, and demand generation in marketing; and customer experience and sales in operations.

Build your tiger team based on relationships and ability rather than seniority. For a digital initiative to thrive, it must account for the complete spectrum of internal and external variables. That means understanding how each process currently works, identifying how digital can or should transform it, and collaborating on a prioritized list of objectives. Parsing these pieces can be personally and politically charged, so the camaraderie of your tiger team is as important as its qualifications.

The executive sponsor is self-explanatory: an evangelist in the upper ranks. Even if your digital leader is a chief digital officer, it’s important to have support from an additional top executive. I recommend that this is not the CEO. CEOs must balance every element of the organization, which leaves little time and attention for even the most important projects. CMOs and CIOs are often strong choices, as each brings relevant experience and perspective that can benefit and ground the digital transformation team.

Finally, a digital advisory council ensures that stakeholders from across the organization are represented and informed. The benefits of the advisory council flow both ways. The council, typically made up of members of the board of directors, additional executives or leaders, and sometimes subject-matter experts, provides input and support on top of the primary team, broadening its expertise and impact. In the process, these stakeholders also become evangelists. By participating in the process, they become involved and more inclined to support the initiative’s needs and objectives.

Digital transformation requires dedication at every level of the organization. By structuring your project to maximize the value that each participant provides, you will engender leadership, advocacy, and ultimately, a successful shift to digital business.

Lisa Arpey helps transform organizations to remain relevant and thrive in a rapidly changing, competitive business world. An established board member with some of the world’s most prestigious organizations, Arpey uses digital and mobile technologies to deliver value, accelerate growth, and establish pathways to new strategic partnerships. As an executive board member at the venerable Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., Arpey led planning and is responsible for overseeing the execution of the theatre’s first-ever digital strategy, which includes a nationwide in-classroom digital learning platform. She has also been a member of the American Film Institute Board of Trustees and a representative of American Airlines serving on multiple boards of directors nationally.

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