Driving Digital Transformation—It’s a Team Effort

Peer Practices
Written by Katie O’Reilly

Karl Gouverneur

Former CIO & Head of Digital Innovation

Northwestern Mutual

Digital transformation remains a top priority for organizations around the globe. But if you ask ten people at your company to define the term, you’ll likely get ten different answers. That leads to the question: since digital transformation is so hard to define, how can companies drive innovation in a way the entire organization can enthusiastically support? 

The Challenge: Positioning your organization for digital transformation

Karl Gouverneur, former CIO and head of digital innovation at Northwestern Mutual, explains that it all hinges on open communication and collaborative teams. 

“If you want to get an entire organization moving in a new direction, people need to understand what you’re working toward,” Gouverneur says.

There’s a big difference between technology and digital, though not everyone realizes it.

“Technology is focused on streamlining business processes, reducing costs, and improving productivity. Digital is about applying technology in a way that introduces new lines of business on a digital channel, bringing in new streams of revenue, monetizing data, discovering new insights, and delivering an enhanced customer experience. This list is not exhaustive—I’m sure every CIO can name their own set of digital priorities.”

It’s not just your internal stakeholders who need to understand and support a transformation agenda. You must bring your customers along, too. 

“While people appreciate companies with technology that makes them easy to work with, they feel an emotional connection to companies that deliver an engaging digital experience they keep coming back to,” Gouverneur says. “Think about the bond people feel with companies like Amazon, Apple, Southwest Airlines or Nordstrom. When you’re talking about digital transformation, that’s the kind of connection you want to achieve with your customers.” 

When digital disruption started to take hold in the financial services industry about a decade ago, Gouverneur made it his mission to ensure his organization was well positioned to innovate and deliver compelling customer experiences. To do this, he started by connecting with his colleagues.

Recommendation 1: Build internal partnerships

“I focused on building partnerships across the business. By demonstrating to your peers that you understand their objectives, constraints and highest aspirations, you make it easier for them to be open to the transformative initiatives you want to pursue. It allows them to see these efforts not as just something cool that the technology people want to work on, but as something that can help the business stand out among competitors and remain relevant to customers. You need to dig deep into the business, visit the different parts and understand the various operating units that make it function, gaining insight into the competitive landscape they face.” In other words, you help your colleagues and thus the company anticipate and mitigate the risk of digital disruption.

That’s a tall order, and encountering challenges is all but inevitable. Often, one of the biggest is getting other parts of the business to view technology colleagues not just as a team pursuing its own goals, but as enablers of growth—strong partners with an ability to work outside their own silo.

“One of the best ways to achieve that is to build relationships across the business and demonstrate your understanding of the work they do. You should build relationships at all levels, from line staff to members of your Board of Directors. Any significant digital initiative will require board approval and funding, so it makes sense to get their buy-in early.” 

Recommendation 2: Become more agile

With the business supporting them, Gouverneur and his team were able to reduce their time to market from 380 days to less than 90—an accomplishment that positioned the organization well for subsequent challenges, such as the rapid deployments necessitated by COVID-19. Gouverneur attributes this success to a cultural transformation that focused on embracing and implementing new ways of working with agile methods at scale. 

“It isn’t easy, but when you succeed in these new ways of working during your digital journey, the impact on your delivery timeline and thus customer satisfaction is dramatic and sets the stage for true transformation.” 

So what advice does Gouverneur have for fellow CIOs trying to drive their own digital transformation journeys? It begins with recognizing the power of collaborative and diverse teams. 

Recommendation 3: Create diverse teams

“Start by assessing the company culture. Consider whether there are spaces set up for collaboration. Assess the habits and behaviors of your teams. How do people interact with each other? How are they addressing conflict? Establish key behaviors for leadership, collaboration and conflict resolution, then lead by example and promote positive behaviors. Those are keys to successfully building an innovative mindset.” 

Another aspect of cultural change is ensuring your organization represents diverse backgrounds and viewpoints. 

“Take a good look at your team members and colleagues—does everyone look the same? Are talented professionals from underrepresented groups—not just women and persons of color, but also people of varied academic backgrounds—being overlooked? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you have work to do. How can we expect our team members to feel a sense of belonging if they feel isolated culturally?” Gouverneur notes that organizational resources are also important in building diversity. 

“Commit yourself to working with resource groups at your company aimed at fostering not just diversity, but a greater sense of inclusion and equity. Encourage other leaders to do the same. If people don’t feel like they belong, they’ll leave. That will get in the way of everything else you want to accomplish.” Indeed, Gouverneur notes, diverse perspectives are crucial to building strong tech ecosystems and to developing a culture of innovation and transformation. 

“If you’re not seeing enough of that in your organization, it’s on you to speak up and do your part to make a change.” Widespread social justice demonstrations across the country have only highlighted how crucial this focus on diversity, equity and inclusion truly is. For Gouverneur, the conversation extends beyond mere representation.

Recommendation 4: Launch new ways to connect

“In order for the people in your organization to feel a sense of belonging, they must feel that they are seen and heard. Skip-level meetings were one of the best ways I found to accomplish that. These give people further down the reporting structure the opportunity to speak directly with you—it’s easy to forget how meaningful that experience can be to those earlier in their careers. Keep the groups diverse but small, come prepared with a few questions to get people talking, and let the conversation flow. Try to be casual—this is not the day to put on a suit!” 

Starting an internal Vlog was also key for Gourverneur. “Don’t over produce the videos.  If you are willing to listen, I guarantee you will learn something. Many times, I used feedback from these meetings and videos to adjust how we did things. Seeing that happen is extremely engaging for the people who give the input, and it goes a long way toward that sense of belonging that keeps teams strong. It also reinforces your credibility as a leader.” 

Above all else, Gouverneur says, don’t let these cross-company conversations, whether with your senior leadership team or with colleagues earlier in their careers, be for nothing. 

Be prepared to act. As technology leaders, isn’t that what we’re meant to do?


Special thanks to Karl Gouverneur and Northwestern Mutual.

by CIOs, for CIOs


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