Women at the vanguard: the relationship between diversity and wider corporate strategy is gaining greater attention © FT Montage/Getty Images

When the pandemic threw the corporate world into virtual mode, digital transformation became an even greater priority.

Last year also shone a spotlight on equality and diversity. Yet the crossover between the two discussions has so far been slim, despite the relationship between diversity and wider corporate strategy winning greater attention.

After the Global Center for Digital Business Transformation at Swiss business school IMD analysed the careers of 508 chief digital officers in 2018-19, it found that almost 85 per cent of the positions were held by men.

The barriers women in this sphere face are created by a cross section of workplace prejudices, says Tara Lajumoke, managing director of FT Strategies, an FT consulting arm that helps businesses build sustainable digital futures.

First, there is a perception that digital transformation involves high workloads and long hours unsuited to women, especially those with caregiving responsibilities; and second, men dominate related fields such as data science.

Digital transformation is seen as being “operationally quite intense”, says Ms Lajumoke. “There is a widely held misconception of what it takes to be successful in technology, and therefore which gender is more suited to that.”

Yet the role is also home to some pioneering women from diverse backgrounds. What advice would some of these women offer those who want to follow in their footsteps?

Set an ambitious goal

Tara Lajumoke

Ms Lajumoke says the first step for anyone looking to implement a digital transformation is to set an ambitious company-wide goal.

“What is your vision, what is your north star? Find that goal and then translate that using a language and metrics that resonate . . . across the organisation,” she says.

A clothing retailer, for instance, might set an organisational goal for the percentage of sales online. In the marketing department, this would become a target for the social media adverts that convert into sales.

Start small, don’t copy and paste

Claire Calmejane © Régis Corbet

Claire Calmejane, chief innovation officer at French bank Société Générale, says digital transformation leaders need, first, to fully understand organisational strategy and clients’ digital requirements and then to put quality before quantity. “Pick three topics and do them very well, and when you have built on that, then you can move on to the next level,” she says. 

Tomoko Yokoi, a researcher at IMD’s Global Center for Digital Business Transformation, warns against falling into what she calls the copy-and-paste trap after initial wins. “Just because you had success in one particular area doesn't mean you can automatically ‘paste’ it elsewhere,” she warns. Leaders should analyse what worked and then adapt that for other parts of the business. 

Lead with empathy

Tomoko Yokoi © Danielle Libine

There is unanimity that successful digital transformation requires empathetic leadership. “I find it astonishing when I speak to leaders and they have a really strong strategy, but they don’t really talk about the people side of the strategy,” says Ms Lajumoke. “More often than not, that strategy on a beautiful PowerPoint deck is not going to materialise if you don’t have empowered people.” 

Employees should have autonomy and decision-making roles, she adds, and contribute to strategy-shaping sessions. Conversations should roam beyond business, with leaders encouraging their teams to share thoughts on other subjects too. “The skill of the future is empathy,” Ms Calmejane says. “Empathy with your customer, empathy with your colleagues — and [dealing with] Covid is a perfect example of that.”

This means being transparent about potential job losses that digital transformation might cause, as well as genuinely pushing efforts to retrain individuals to work in other roles in the company.

“Even though everyone understands that you have to change, when you first try to do it, it’s a different thing altogether,” says Ms Yokoi. “You have to make sure it’s not threatening.”

Ms Lajumoke says female colleagues in particular have shown her how to lead in this way. “I found in my 15-year professional career more empathetic female leaders, and for some reason I found more examples of women who are comfortable being vulnerable . . . That really lends itself naturally to authentic leadership.”

Immerse yourself

For those just starting out on carving a leading role in digital transformation, Ms Yokoi says it is important to realise there is no fixed career path.

Ms Lajumoke recommends reading extensively around the subject and then gaining as much experience as possible. “Digital transformation is a very immersive experience, so whatever you can do to get that real-world experience is great. But think laterally, it doesn’t have to be at a consultancy,” she adds. Valuable experience can be gained at small businesses, or by spending time with a larger corporation’s in-house digital team.

Both Ms Calmejane and Ms Lajumoke also recommend finding a mentor as an important first step. “Mentoring and sponsorship is important for me, building this network around you, especially as a woman,” Ms Calmejane says.

Just as with digital transformation, a career path needs a strategy, she adds. “Think about it like a project. You really have to think about your differentiator, where will you stand out?” 

Sometimes, she says, this might be your gender. “Someone said to me once, ‘Basically you will stand out in financial services [digital transformation], because there are no women in what you are doing.’ By being a young woman, I’m only 38, that is very rare at the end of the day.”

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