Fast-forward: EY's James Matcher unpacks digital leadership

Shift from doing digital to being digital, from digital projects to digital in your DNA.

EY partner and lead for Robotic Process Automation at EY Africa James Matcher painted a bright picture of the future for a captivated audience – one of collaboration between people and machines, of expansion rather than job losses, and of purpose-driven innovation. James was speaking on the first day of the 2018 Finance Indaba (3 and 4 October 2018, at the Sandton Convention Centre).

One of his opening statements was to turn a well-worn phrase on its head, suggesting that we replace the idea that “the rate of change has never been as fast as it is today” with one of “the rate of change will never be as slow as it is today”. 

This encapsulates the potential of the digital revolution and the Fourth Industrial Revolution that will utterly transform the world in coming years. According to James, every sector, and every role imaginable will be shaped by digital – with the exception of the clergy and gym instructors, he jokes. 

For our children the change will remain unfelt as they are born and raised as digital natives. Rather, it is those of us in business today, and especially our leaders, who will feel the impact and have to adjust to. “This change will come long before we retire, and more than once,” he warns. 

 

Digital is one of the defining mega-trends of our time, and the exponential growth has barely begun. Given the inevitability of this, James believes we need to stop focusing exclusively on managing the risks this poses, and give ourselves space to explore the huge potential it unlocks. 

James says: 

“The Fourth Industrial Revolution is going to be about convergence, collisions, impact. In the last 60 years we’ve seen massive change and innovation but largely contained within vertical siloes like FinTech, AgriTech, MedTech, etc. What we are seeing now is the cross-pollination and interplay. How do I take nanotechnology out of MedTech and put it into industrial engineering to start fixing machines from the inside?”

James believes that this requires leaders to be able to create sufficient distance to examine their industries and businesses in the way that a disruptor would, asking “how would I break my business?” 

“Too many executives are trying to transform what they have already, but what if the most transformative perspective is the one you don’t have?”

Another application of this is to reexamine value chains – from an internal view, to one that asks where you sit inside a super value chain, one that begins and ends many organisations outside of you. Who feeds into you? Who feeds into them? Is there a better more agile supplier that could challenge any of these positions? 

“You as an organisation cannot be a player in a super value chain unless you embrace digital.” And this systemic deployment of digital, says James, remains a significant challenge because it requires us to stop “doing” digital and start “being” digital.

Through the insights gleaned from the recent EY leadership survey (polling 2,488 global companies), James shares three major differentiators of digital leadership, specifically:

1.    Purposeful leadership: This requires leaders and companies to be purpose-focused beyond the company “mission”, taking a long-term, humanistic, and aspirational or belief-driven position about why you do what you do, and even why your company exists.

2.    Collective leadership: Recognise that no one leader knows everything any more. The sectors are changing faster than anyone can keep up with. So how do you ensure you have the knowledge you need? You commit to lifelong learning, and bring in diversity to your leadership and board. James asks: “How many boards have a 22-year old AI specialist, or an 80-year old sage of the industry in their ranks?”

3.    Digital-era leadership: Finally, leaders must ask how digitally mature is your leadership? The hallmarks of this maturity is a leadership that embraces an experiential mindset, is less afraid to fail, and more agile and responsive. EY’s data shows that high digital maturity in companies can mean outperforming peers (in a listed environment) by up to 50%. 

So, what does the future hold? James talks about the three Ps: Everything mentioned is possible, most is probable, and some is predetermined. He concludes: “We must savagely transform our business models. The businesses that are trying to defend who they were are already lost.”