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Guest blog: How to hire the right digital NED (five lessons)

One of the greatest threats faced by organisations in today’s digital world is a Board that does not fully appreciate the threats and opportunities presented by technological advancement. How data can provide a competitive advantage, and the implication of new technology on the business model, customers and organisational design and its transformational potential? To be successful digital transformation is a top-down leadership exercise that impacts every aspect of an organisation – it’s much deeper than simply acquiring new software or bringing in external consultants.

In purely digital enterprises, speed, collaboration and agility are baked into the culture.

They’re inherent in the way everybody works and in every decision taken. But in more traditional organisations, many executives lack the expertise or experience to take the lead in digital transformation.

That’s why, over the past few years, we’ve seen dozens of examples of large consumer-facing businesses appointing high-profile NEDs with digital backgrounds. It’s a trend that’s spreading across other sectors and into companies of all shapes and sizes. Increasingly, we’re being asked to help boards find NEDs who combine a deep knowledge of the digital landscape with a solid track record in corporate management. But with demand high, they’re in relatively scarce supply.

What’s more, simply filling the digital expertise gap with a ‘digital guru’ isn’t guaranteed to deliver results. To make the right appointment, there are some important factors to take into account. By way of illustration, consider the stories of two very different organisations, five years apart, we’ve altered a few details to protect identities…

About six years ago we met the CMO of a £10bn retail business. They had been in role for just coming up to a year and had joined from an online price comparison business, bringing with them a Digital Director.

But things had not worked out as planned and less than 12 months in the newly appointed Digital Director had tendered their resignation. We were surprised, they had a great reputation and impressive track record at their previous company.

So what had gone wrong?

When we met the individual it quickly became clear that despite buy in from the Board for a strategic shift towards e-commerce, the rest of the company was still in a ‘bricks and mortar’ mindset. It hadn’t embraced a business strategy, operating model and digital strategy which were one and the same thing. It hadn’t embraced a truly digital approach and without the buy-in of senior and front-line managers, the planned changes withered on the vine.

But he recognised that he wasn’t entirely without blame himself. He had assumed that what had worked in a purely online business would work at a traditional retailer. He hadn’t listened enough, or invested sufficient time and effort in winning hearts and minds. Frustrated by the lack of progress, he’d resigned as soon as an opportunity arose to join a promising new online start-up. 

As we pointed out to the CMO, unless the corporate culture changed, simply replacing him with another digitally-savvy executive was likely to end in the same way. What’s more, it was important to recognise that corporate culture wouldn’t change overnight.

So rather than recruit a replacement, the CMO decided to champion the digital agenda personally. And this started at the top, getting the CEO and the executive team to walk the talk and change their own behaviours and attitudes as the first stage in getting a digital mindset embedded throughout the organisation. And they brought a few ‘bright young things’ to act as role models and catalysts for this new culture.


For a business to drive a digital agenda it has to embrace a digital culture throughout the organisation, not just bring in a ‘digital guru’.

More recently, we were approached by the Chairman of a financial services business with a brief to find a Digital NED. Highlighting another trend; requests for Digital NEDs used to be largely from technology, retail and consumer businesses, now we’re seeing far more demand from businesses within the financial services, industrial and healthcare sectors...

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This guest blog was originally published as part of Associate Knowledge by BSA Associate, Warren Partners.

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Posted by Joelle Warren on 22 August 2017