Take the Lead: ‘This programme isn't exactly what you would call a free lunch’

Source: De Tijd – ‘Take The Lead’ supplement (02/12/2017); Author: Filip Michiels

Professor Stijn Viaene, programme director of Take the Lead at Vlerick Business School, can't emphasise enough that the digital transformation is not just about technology. In fact, to put it even more strongly, it affects all the people within a company. ‘People who take this programme should be able take on the role of ambassadors afterwards’, he tells us.

A programme such as Take the Lead is not only very useful these days, but is gradually also becoming necessary. Why is this?

Stijn Viaene: It is no coincidence that Mediafin and Vlerick have found common ground here. Both organisations believe that the world is undergoing drastic changes and they are choosing to lead the way. By means of this programme, we hope to take 200 people from the corporate world on a journey which will make them aware of both the challenges and opportunities involved in this essential digital transformation. Our explicit objective is to help existing companies transform in line with this new digital reality. The basis of competition has undergone drastic changes as a result of the digital technology which is impacting us ever more quickly and deeply. Companies which still believe that it is merely a matter of enabling technology will soon find themselves hitting their heads against a brick wall.

Take The Lead 2018

Isn't this gradually becoming a widely accepted view?

No, not really. It's safe to assume that most people can see and feel that there is something around the corner. But knowing exactly what it is and being able to accurately describe and frame this phenomenon, converting it into action, is something else entirely. Take a bank like KBC, for example. They have already spent several years conscientiously shifting their course towards the digital world. And they aren't doing at all badly. All the same, I can safely say that many people in the bank still find it difficult to relate, give meaning to and support the change which they all experience personally every day. Many still feel more like victims than drivers. This also indicates that digital transformation is not something which happens from one day to the next: it is a long drawn-out affair.

In other words: top management often understands that things should be done differently, but middle management isn’t sufficiently on board yet?

Yes, that's right. In recent years, many Flemish companies have sent some of their top managers on missions to Silicon Valley or China. But this broader perspective is often lacking at a slightly lower level. The big challenge here often lies in unlearning the current approach and strategy, despite the fact that people generally try to uphold it at present. Only then will you be able to teach middle management how things can and should be different from now on. Don’t underestimate the extent of a transformation like this. Suddenly everything is up in the air: the introduction of new technology, the way you approach clients, the products and services, the changing nature of the work, you name it.

To put things in very concrete terms: what do you want the middle management to learn during this programme?

In the first instance, it's all about showing and feeling the impact of digital technology on existing companies. Then we get the participants really enthusiastic about taking part in this kind of change process. With that in mind, we teach them how to adopt various different roles. It all starts with the realisation that they need to look outside to understand what is going on before they can translate this into high-impact change internally. 

In 2017, navel-gazing companies that still believe that their business revolves around themselves are straying off course. We try to help people translate this conclusion into practice: if you already understand the enormous extent to which technology, customer behaviour and competition have changed, what does this mean for your job, your colleagues and your organisation? How can you get your colleagues to join you on a new, visionary path while helping them to overcome various obstacles?

The meteoric rise of algorithms, robots or artificial intelligence mainly seems to frustrate a lot of people these days. And that's quite logical really: what if the professional skills you have spent years acquiring suddenly become worthless? So it means you need to keep reinventing parts of yourself, find out where and how you can still play an important role, which conscious choices you can and should make.

In order to achieve this, you also need the courage to experiment and take on the role of an entrepreneur within your company. We put a strong emphasis on this, as well as on the importance of collaboration within multifunctional teams.

Some companies or sectors have already made great progress in this digital transformation, while others are still dragging their feet: doesn't that make it rather tricky to design this kind of programme?

Great progress is a relative concept here. In my opinion, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to digital transformations. It goes without saying that some companies or sectors have made more progress than others. We count on cross-pollination between the participants, in both directions: companies which have already made great strides in their digital transformation can sometimes learn from the concerns of companies which still have a relatively naive view. The participants in this programme naturally receive a great deal of context and content from us, but last year showed that they benefit at least as much from their experiences and confrontation with the other participants. This is a good thing, as the concept of sector or industry is increasingly being placed under pressure. Nowadays, clients and their needs take centre stage. Whether these needs are satisfied by a bank or some technology giant from a completely different sector tends to matter less and less these days. We therefore try to encourage people and companies to throw their windows and doors wide open.

Are you hoping that this programme will also help to transform managers into ambassadors afterwards?

Absolutely. We also select the participants very carefully, based on their desire to support the transformation project within their company. We only accept 200 participants, although last year around ten times that many applications came flooding in. Participants must also be prepared to invest time in the programme: it's anything but a free lunch. If you want to learn, you have to invest. We focus on people who work for organisations which are currently undergoing a major transformation: on people who want to help lead the way. On people who believe it is their duty to get the entire company on board with this transformation.

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