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The matrix route to becoming a ‘digital director’

The matrix route to becoming a ‘digital director’

NZ businesses need to rethink how we are developing ‘digital directors’, says Viv Gurrey. The process needs a co-ordinated approach along with a jumpstart for prospective candidates.

Take your technical, digital and technology experience and consider how this may be best used in setting strategy as a governance professional, as a ‘digital director’ - Viv Gurrey
Take your technical, digital and technology experience and consider how this may be best used in setting strategy as a governance professional, as a ‘digital director’ - Viv Gurrey


Digital transformation affects the ongoing evolution of many businesses today. It is the driver of extended opportunities via associated constituencies like the cloud and mobile, while fast-tracking ways of forming and testing new business models safely and at a lower cost.

There is an increasing recognition of the need for governance professionals, who can provide both leadership and counsel to the CEO in respect to technology strategy. And, critically, the development of digital technology talent across the C-suite, elevated to CEO level with an inherent ability to execute.

Organisations need capability, experience and to know where to go for the ever changing answers to ever changing questions in a rapidly changing environment. Thus, digital governance has moved from an intriguing concept just two to three years ago to a practical reality and, indeed, a necessity if organisations intend to position themselves ahead and continue to stay ahead of the game.

The people who can provide this - the ‘digital directors’ - are governance professionals, who can understand and envision the benefits of various forms of technology and transformational change. Their portfolio of skills is much sought after, right now they are in limited supply!

This is in part, because attaining this governance role typically involves a hierarchical shift in process away from what is considered to be the traditional career model for governance professionals or those seeking a career in the same.

We talk about diversity being on all board agendas but the question of diversity of skills set and prioritisation of digital and technology needs to be elevated to a far higher discussion than it is now.

Viv Gurrey

Read more: Anna Curzon of Xero: ‘Speak up and make a difference’

Veering from tradition

Typically, the traditional career lifecycle starts at the ‘bottom’ of the organisation and hard work may promote you through to leadership and operational management roles, like an IT director, then perhaps through to C-suite roles such as CIO, COO through to CEO, before pivoting to a governance role generally later in career, sometimes even seen as a ‘retirement option’.

This almost seems an accidental progression through to what is one of the most critical roles in an organisation's structure and evolution.

Are we leaving those who set our strategies and protect the governance of our organisations to chance? Perhaps, and what can we do to change this, well maybe a ‘matrix approach’ that is more purposeful in its intent to developing this capability.

Read more: Westpac CIO Dawie Olivier on 'The killer app for today’s ICT teams'

This matrix approach will see ‘digital governance roles’ coming from all sorts of areas, whereas before it seems to have been one step at a time to reach this competency and even then is not always recognised as an essential skill set component of a Board.

Let’s look elsewhere and across roles and organisations and consider when we start to appoint people into governance roles, who are the ones in the executive team who can fulfil that? The CIO or CTO, for instance, may also have a real interest, a real passion, for governance.

We can also consider people who have experience in start-ups and SMEs, in government bodies and responsible authorities and non-government organisations.

‘Digital directors’ need not come from certain age levels. You could be a 24-year-old start up founder, who has a heavy technology focused experience in digitalisation, who can go and learn governance skills. Much focus on diversity is invested in the gender debate when there are opportunities for diversity across other spectrums too which often are ignored.

Read more: Tech disruption and cybersecurity top boardroom agenda in NZ

What is key is having the right traits, the correct digital competencies and above all the right capability and passion to get the job done. With this foundation, governance skill can be learnt.

There is no substitute for a formal process or systemisation and this is no different, the process or achieving charter directorship status will offer the skills needed and also encourage experience.

Formal training to develop competency and understanding can be gained through the Institute of Directors, Boardroom 360 and many smaller boutique offerings.

Reverse mentoring

There is a key role for senior board members to take these aspiring ‘digital directors’ under their wings. In turn, the mentee can share knowledge on the digital space with the mentor and both can learn from this mentoring relationship. It’s about creating value.

We talk about diversity being on all board agendas but the question of diversity of skills set and prioritisation of digital and technology needs to be elevated to a far higher discussion than it is now.

Senior board members can take aspiring ‘digital directors’ under their wings. In turn, the mentee can share knowledge on the digital space with the mentor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying instead of the gender conversation, I’m all about celebrating difference, but let’s make sure we consider what are the business needs and then ask what diversity will bring to the table to meet that need.

And digitalisation in the board room has to be lead from the top and with simple day to day processes such as getting rid of the old Board papers and replacing these with mobile devices, more collaborative platforms and collaboration tools. Security used to be the apology for not taking this practical step but it no longer is with a number of secure sites offering opportunity for sharing of meetings, papers and tabled topics such as budgets.

It is important to remember one ‘digital director’ may not be enough. The ‘partial digital board’ (see 2014 Digital Board Director Study) or those with just one digital board member, is not all that desirable. It potentially puts the digital transformation risk to one person and could potentially be seen as both abdication from the remaining board members (a little like finance used to be!) or make the single ‘digital director’ risk averse to the point of inertia!

Two or three ‘digital directors’ build synergy and they will bring significant levels of their experience to the governance table often contributing a number of other skills and competencies at the same time not just in the technology space. Some of the many additional skill sets needed to be considered by the board are the ability - and determination of the ‘digital director’ - to translate ideas to strategy and empower the C-suite to do the same for executives.

Digital directors are part of an organisation's growth mechanism. Cap Gemini (The Digital Advantage) shares evidence demonstrating companies that embrace digital transformation and outperform others in their sector group. Digital transformation starts around the governance table.

We know that New Zealand is a microcosm of the rest of the world and as such we have also been a testing ground and remain a testing ground for new technology.

We also understand that one of the most significant risks presented to our finance risk and audit committees is that of cybersecurity, and this is true as one of the most identified risks globally. The reputational and financial costs of poor technology implementations and poor execution of strategy are massive. Boards need to create strong security cultures and see data as ‘gold’.

The priority call is to see New Zealand Boards actively seek and bring to the table a diverse mix of ‘digital directors’.

Matrix thinking builds on the concept of the network - with a tangible benefit to the bottom line, the human capital and a direct correlation with overall success however that may be measured in your business.

Presenting to the board? Here's a few lessons

Viv Gurrey is the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Directors of Parents Centres NZ. She is Deputy Chair of the Pharmacy Council of New Zealand, and also chair of its finance audit and risk committee. Gurrey is on the Board of a range of organisations. Her career as a governance and leadership professional spans over 30 years and her previous roles include managing director of SAP in New Zealand, general manager and director of the GEAC Corporation and career positions with IBM. She is currentl mentoring five young professionals from the banking, technology, insurance and hospitality sectors, four of which are looking to become the next generation of ‘digital directors’.

Send news tips and comments to divina_paredes@idg.co.nz

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