4 ways to position digital and customer transformation in the boardroom

Four Aussie brand executives talk about how they're bringing their boards on the digital transformation journey


As marketing, customer, digital and technology leaders work to orchestrate wide-scale transformation across their organisations to meet changing customer demands and needs, an instrumental player in their success is the company board.

But couple the digital and marketing literacy gap across many Australian boardrooms, with the high risks of undertaking transformation and significant costs of the technology and skills required to achieve it, and it’s clear educating and securing board buy-in is no easy task.

During the recent Adobe Summit, executives across several Australian brands shared how they’re working to ensure their organisations’ boards understand and embrace digital transformation and strategy.

1. Tourism Australia transformation leader: Reframing in a customer strategy context

Tourism Australia’s GM strategy and transformation, Paul Bailey, said the tourism body’s board has been a key partner in its digital transformation journey over the last seven years. What was key to securing their buy-in was making ‘digital’ a tangible product for them understand.

“Digital transformation represents a lot of things, and it’s really hard as a board director to know where you do or don’t play,” Bailey said. “One thing we did was pivot from ‘digital transformation’ to a ‘digital customer strategy’ and putting the customer at the heart of what we want to do. It’s about how we elevate industry to be part of that customer ecosystem and then how we underpin it with right technology.

“From there, it’s using our board, MD and CMO to guide us and provide ideas on where we want to focus. And we are clear and concise on this focus that we always need to solve for the industry and that the customer is at the heart.”  

Bailey also stressed how to position the streams of work that support that, whether it be first-party data stream, or beyond that to industry data and insights, and ensure Tourism Australia has the right skillsets to do that. One key question it’s worked with the board on around technology and automation is how to ensure each region is empowered as well as developing required skillsets internally.

“The budget discussion is also key to ensure we don’t overspend or underspend,” Bailey said. “The board has been very good at leaning into those discussions and providing guidance at the strategic and strategy level, which has also ensured technology and data are underpinning this growing demand.”

Read more: 10 steps Tourism Australia’s CMO has taken to remain adaptable in the face of uncertainty

2. Telstra digital chief: Be realistic about outcomes

It’s well documented Telstra is in the middle of a multi-year transformation. The telco’s executive director of digital, Jenni Barnett, said it was the board that realised the need for such a large-scale transformation.  

As a result, her first piece of advice for anyone working to get a digital and customer-led transformation off the ground is getting that top-down buy-in. “The board has to be believe it, then the executive group has to believe it,” Barnett said.  

“There was recognition Telstra needed to disrupt itself, move a lot faster, completely transform our digital experiences and our customer experiences irrespective of channels, simplify our products, fix our back-end and spaghetti systems, and at the same time blow up our ways of working and move to Agile ways of working.

“It was top-down, then our CEO and executive team created T22, which was the framing for the whole company around our digital transformation. If you walked in and asked anyone working at Telstra what T22 is, they will understand this in terms of where we are headed as a company, which is transforming our customer experiences and systems.”  

Barnett’s other learning is to be realistic with the board about outcomes. “You can promise a dream, but the reality is it’s very difficult to transform a big company at pace,” she continued.

“You need to be quite realistic about how that information is presented and also break it down into pieces to deliver it.”  

Board education is a really important component in all of this, Barnett said. “People think digital stuff just happens – it’s a miracle, with no human intervention and it’s easy. But there are ways to extract value out of the digital channels from a commercial, customer and productivity point of view and in order to solve customer problems,” she said.

“Demystifying some of those things, understanding the role of your tech partners and where they play and how they can take the organisation forward are some of my key learnings.”  

3. 7-Eleven strategy and tech chief: Encourage people to ask the dumb questions

Over at 7-Eleven, GM of strategy and technology, Steven Eyears, detailed two main roles for the board. The first is the governance piece.

“Digital transformation is the second-biggest investment the company had ever made, so we had a real obligation to make sure the board knew what it was signing off, and not be arrogant or throw a bunch of jargon in and expect them to trust us to just go forward with it,” he said.

“So we spent a lot of time on that, which paid huge benefits not just with the board but our senior leadership team, because they also had different levels of understanding around digital.

“We got all of them together in the room allowing them to ask lots of dumb questions – we did the same of Adobe and the team gracefully answered those, and didn’t make us feel stupid. I’d recommend that to anyone: Lean on the right partners to help you understand and help from a governance perspective, as there are lots of risk, not only financial and across the long-term, but also because you’re playing with customer data and there’s privacy issues to factor in.”  

Eyears’ second must with bringing boards on the journey for transformation is recognising their contribution around positive risk.

“The board is very good at reminding us about risk in the positive sense, along with our mission,” he explained. “They are about taking enough risk to get a balanced portfolio – are we taking enough risk? They expect some things to fail – if they don’t, you’re not taking enough risks.”  

Like Bailey and Barnett, Eyears stressed the importance of educating the board about on the horizon and what is possible.

“We talk about management often being on the boat trying to sail the boat, head down, ensuring people are in the right place and sailing the right way. The board’s role is to remind us if you have your eyes down, who has your eyes up? Who is looking at the horizon? They can help with that but they need to understand the possible to do that,” he added.  

Read more: 7-Eleven and delivering convenience in the digital era

4: Adobe B2B marketing chief: Make it a strategic discussion by partnering with the CIO

While some CMOs are building strong relationships at a board level, it’s unfortunately more common to find marketing chiefs hamstrung by commercial, executional demands at a board level, Adobe VP of DX marketing APAC and Japan, Duncan Egan, said.

“We see CMOs getting into the board and the boards wanting to know what you have done for me today, or what is the pipeline - it’s a KPI discussion, not a strategic discussion,” Egan commented.

“If the past year has showed us anything, it’s that the big opportunity is the alignment between CMO and CIO. This alignment is gold for your organisation. Obviously, the CEO also then needs to be part of that to have a clear strategy on what is digital transformation, customer experience, or however they want to call the transformation internally, to help with that strategic discussion and to ensure it’s not a tactical discussion in the boardroom.”  

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