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Francis Wade | Crisis Favours The Digitally Bold CEO

Francis Wade


Why are top executives getting frustrated at their teams during COVID-19? One reason: it’s obvious to them that the company needs to become a digital operation.

They may also be very demanding, but don’t blame them: they alone can see a joined-up world beyond the pandemic that most subordinates can’t.

In the past few years, my consulting firm has implored our clients to include a digital strategist on their boards, executive ranks, and strategic-planning retreats. Only a tiny few have risen to the occasion, adding someone (usually much younger) to strategy discussions, which seemed to be about a faraway future.

COVID-19 has changed the timeline.

As we scan the outputs of prior client retreats, we see that the long-term plans they made were painfully slow. They imagined a gradual drift into a digital world where people’s behaviours would change eventually, imperceptibly.

Today, they must make changes to go online from offline in a matter of months. However, CEOs are having a difficult time getting their executive teams to envision a future that even their youngest employees can see. Why?

In a nutshell, each company function is lost in its own silo. Marketing, HR, operations, IT – each is unable to lead the way. The new vision is beyond their grasp because it requires joined-up thinking.

What should CEOs do to accelerate the process of forging a digital transformation?


Many top executives get mad when their functionaries simply try to copy the offline world to the one that’s online.

For example, advertising on the Internet involves more than putting up digital billboards. It requires an understanding of engagement psychology, content, and technology, which few possess. The average marketing department won’t know how to gamify an audience or perhaps even how to create one.

But this is to be expected. And forgiven.

While initial attempts are weak, they represent a certain level of willingness and the start of a steep climb.

However, CEOs must insist on an unprecedented level of cooperation right away. They need to role-model an eagerness to cross internal boundaries to discover ideas and talent wherever they may be found. For example, if the new receptionist has 10,000 followers on Instagram, pull her in!


To overcome the initial disappointment, executives should encourage experiments that aren’t meant to replicate old processes but still achieve the same objectives.

For instance, a company that is used to engaging its walk-in customers in ways that make the experience special cannot offer the usual free coffee, air conditioning, and relaxed banter. Instead, they must ask themselves why those features worked and what emotions they were intended to evoke.

In like manner, pastors that relied on the right blend of hymns, testimonies, and sermons to keep congregants coming back for more can’t rely on these elements. In these times, they need to go beyond the superficial form of these activities and find the underlying benefit that is being delivered.

In other words, they must begin all over again. Unfortunately, Facebook, Instagram, and Netflix are just a single click away, along with every other online church service in the world. The only hope they have of competing is to experiment and make mistakes to learn what will deliver a similar experience via the Internet.


Recently, I hosted a virtual conference that attracted several hundred global registrants. Behind the scenes of the Time Blocking Summit, I was forced to pick up new tools, and with it, unique capabilities I barely understood.

In retrospect, I can laugh at my mishaps running ads on Facebook, Instagram, Quora, and Google, but I had to make an effort. It was the only way to apprehend the power of these tools, which have no equivalent in the offline world.

These capabilities are highly nuanced, able to break down old barriers. For example, think of your employees using WhatsApp and Zoom to organise themselves into cross-functional teams. They do so on their own time, without the involvement of management, training themselves to use these apps to create new connections across boundaries. In the offline world, it would have been impossible.

Case in point: companies now need a private, community forum to keep dispersed staff members together. Too many executives, stuck in ‘Mi nuh use them ting deh’ social media prejudices, can’t lead the charge.

The COVID-19 crisis favours CEOs who are willing to push themselves to learn uncomfortable lessons that used to be optional, theoretical, or futuristic. Today, they need to be visible role models of learning in order to lead in these extraordinary times.


Francis Wade is a management consultant and author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity. To receive a Summary of Links to past columns, or give feedback, email:

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