The Digital Age needs Digital Leadership

If you look into the digital market, you will notice that there are no German or even European big players in the digital commerce business.

Jeff Bezos, Zuckerberg and the Google boys are leading the western hemisphere while clever and aggressive Asian entrepreneurs like Jack Ma or Robin Li are leading the Eastern world. So why is there no German Jobs? A Dutch Bezos? A French Ma?

It seems to be that this is not a matter of business and opportunities. Europe’s GDP is nearly the same size as the US or China. So what’s the difference? We have got some of the best and most-established brands in Europe: brands like H&M, Ikea, Zara, or Aldi, which easily could beat companies like Amazon at least in their specific vertical. So why isn’t there any global online player from Europe?

Digital Leadership is the key to success in the digital age

The truth is, it’s all about management and owners. Digital business does not start with knowledge about your market, about experience or 150 years of tradition. Digital business starts with disruptive leadership thinking and digital culture first. It starts with smart people who do not give a penny for all of your corporate heritage. It starts with people who are willing to break the rules, to become a weirdo.

The well-known Gerrit Heinemann once said that German retailers have “a brains problem” and he was seriously attacked for that. But the truth is: He’s right. The smart academic, passionate digital natives you’ll need to run your digital transformation hire with companies like Zalando or small start-ups. They love to work for crazy weirdos like Oliver Samwer and they love to work in an environment where change is more important than tradition. Even if the wages might be lower than what you have to offer.

Digital Transformation Cloud by Brand Pilots

Digital Transformation Cloud by Brand Pilots

Start transformation with yourself

So my first and strongest advice to my clients is that Digital Transformation starts with culture and leaders first. You need leaders who are willing to go insane about transformation. Steve Jobs was reported to be insane about Apple’s products. Bezos is crazy about amazon’s basic business idea. Samwer sees himself as a digital warrior. Elon has a God-like status in the digital community. To successfully run digital transformation, start with yourself first and go mad about transforming your business.

With my team we often use a model we call the “Digital Transformation Engine”. In our model it all starts with the “Digital Leaders”. They are the ones who force digital disruption, who provide a clear vision and establish a digital disruptive leadership thinking. They are the most important players in the transformation process because they start the engine and give direction.

Digital Transformation is not just another project. It’s survival of the fittest and even a Billion Dollar company can easily be beaten by some 23 years old Standford graduates. So you are in direct competition with this 23 year old kid. If you do not think disruptive – how should your organization face transformation?

Start with questioning everything. Because … the 23 year old kid will do. Define your mission statement. Make sure it’s evangelized and understood by your company and that you have a company wide commitment.

Get the right people

The next step is to identify or to hire the people doing the job: the Digital Natives in your organization who are mad about transformation – we call them the “Digital Makers”. They are the ones who will help to realize your vision, to start spinning the wheels. This is one of the most important things to do: Invest heavily in digital capabilities and knowledge within your organisation. According to a 2013 Cap Gemini analysis “77% of companies consider missing digital skills as the key hurdle to their Digital Transformation” – still valid.

And following Gerrit Heinemann: It’s more important that they believe in digital than that they know how your store is organized. Together with them it’s your most important job to establish a culture for digital change. And this does not only mean your internal culture, but also the way you think about your business. Digital transformation also means to establish a culture where you put your client in the center of all your activities. Customer Experience first is the key to digital success. Period.

Move your organization

Obviously the biggest advantage Bezos and Ma have got is that they do not have the third group – the rest of the pack. The employees who have been working in your company for ages. The non-digital-people. The people who tell you “That won’t work”. Some say it’s easy to succeed digital transformation if you only have a team of young digital natives to run your company. It might be your weakest point to start with a mature organization, BUT it’s also your biggest chance to be different from the start-ups.

We call this third group the “Business Natives” because they know everything about your business and we think they might prove to be your biggest asset. If you – together with your team of digital natives – are able to initiate a cultural shift in your organization you will be able to create a force of “Enablers” where you can keep pace with Bezos and the digital guys.

Leaders first!

So final conclusion: If you want to transform your business, start transforming yourself first. Digital transformation is a business of leaders (and even celebrities).Or at least hire the right leaders for your organization.

Christoph calls himself a Digital Immigrant even if he started back in the 1980ties with mailboxing and computers. Having started his own digital business pre-internet, he successfully established one of the leading European digital agencies (, which he sold to IBM in 2016. He’s one of the digital weirdos and currently focussed on the effects of digitalization to our society.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *