5 Characteristics of Successful Digital Transformation Leaders

Apr 27, 2016
7 Min Read
5 Characteristics of Successful Digital Transformation Leaders

5 Characteristics of Successful Digital Transformation LeadersIn its 2015 research, executive recruiting firm RRA uncovered 21 attributes of the best digital transformation leaders. The analysis revealed that digital transformation leaders are defined by their ability to serve as productive disruptors: leaders who transform companies not by simply generating bold strategies but also by engaging people in the hard work of transformation. These leaders are more disruptive and innovative than other executives.

But, equally important, they are more socially adept than other executives – as well as bolder and more determined in translating ideas into action. They recognize that ideas without execution are hallucinations, and they understand that execution hinges on an ability to marshal the energies of the broader organization.

These leaders don’t simply aim to disrupt – they leverage their interpersonal skills to productively disrupt. They not only see the future and understand how to get there, they energize their colleagues to take the journey with them. Here are their five core characteristics in a bit more detail:


The top digital transformation leaders excel in innovation. As Tanya Cordrey, Chief Digital Officer of Guardian News and Media told RRA: “My primary role when I’m meeting with my fellow C-level executives is to be looking toward the future, but you should not make the future feel like science fiction. You achieve this by painting a picture of an ambitious, bold future that feels possible but is also realistic. You have to be innovative within the bounds of what is possible.”

Top digital transformation leaders also highlight the importance of relentlessly linking innovation to clear business outcomes. They recognize that their capability to sell untested ideas hinges on the ability to establish a clear line of sight to revenue growth or cost reduction goals. ​


Successful digital transformation leaders bring an entrepreneurial spirit to their work, have little tolerance for the way things always have been done in a company, and are comfortable managing ambiguity and uncertainty.

The most dramatic difference between digital transformation leaders and other senior executives is the inclination to cut through bureaucracy. Large companies need some bureaucracy to manage risk and reap the benefits of scale, but top digital transformation leaders are adept at removing the clutter of unnecessary processes and turning decisions into action.


The best digital transformation leaders may be more comfortable with uncertainty than their peers, but that doesn’t stop them from being more decisive as well. RRA’s research revealed that it is that comfort with ambiguity that allows transformation leaders to set direction without fear.

When digital transformation leaders take initiative, they do so publicly. The data showed that these leaders are 21 percent more likely to lead from the front than the broader population of senior executives.

Socially Adept

Innovative and disruptive strategies don’t matter if the people with game-changing ideas are not able to communicate them in a way that diverse constituencies will embrace. And communication goes both ways: Digital transformation leaders listen hard, too.

Top digital transformation leaders are 21 percent more likely to seek to understand people than other executives. They also are 21 percent more likely to adapt to different audiences, which is critical at large corporations with long histories and multiple divisions that sometimes seem to speak different languages.


Digital transformation leaders, at their best, help others become transformational, too. By focusing on achievement, insisting on action and moving forward with an optimistic attitude, digital transformation leaders exude a determination that can be infectious.

Are You Ready?

When it comes to overall digital transformation, how’s your company doing? Are its efforts driven by a leader like the ones described here? To help you answer that, Colin Barker at ZDNet summarized RRA’s process for successful digital transformation, which involves companies evaluating themselves on a scale from “ready” to “not ready.”

“At the start, most companies are focused on steady state management, are skeptical of new ideas, are risk averse, and are most comfortable working in environments that have well established processes and long-standing structures,” wrote Barker.

  • Step one:Focus on steady-state management.
  • Step two:Employ incremental improvements of existing products and services.
  • Step three:Look for significant improvements in those existing products or services. If you don't see any, you might want to start over.
  • Step four: You have achieved significant benefits and developed entirely new products and services.

“RRA stressed that you must not look for fast change,” added Barker. “Haste can be the worst enemy in this kind of process. Companies that try to achieve too much, too quickly often have to backtrack. Worse, they can do real damage to themselves.”

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