Want to Be a Better Leader? Start by Managing Digital Dualisms

Good Things Can Come From Struggling to Find the Right Balance

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What is leadership in the era of digitally powered brand building?

I've been asking this question since I entered the marketing world nearly 20 years ago, first at P&G, later as a start-up entrepreneur, now at Nestle as global head of digital. And I asked it again loudly during my joint-keynote presentation at Ad Age's Digital conference earlier this year.

As marketers and business people, we have the natural instinct to resolve tension. Today leadership -- especially against a digital backdrop -- is about learning to manage tension. More to the point, we need to straddle what I like to refer to as "digital dualisms."

A dualism is a tension point between two real or perceived opposites. Back in college, as a student of political theory, I obsessed around dualisms like freedom vs. democracy. They rarely had straight or perfect lines to the truth, and the tension itself was the starting point of wisdom.

Fast forward to today, digital realities -- from socialization to mobilization -- put an urgent premium on understanding dualisms. Yes, we always anchor to fundamentals for balance, but we must lead against a backdrop of grey and rapidly changing context

Among my many responsibilities at Nestle, I lead a Digital Acceleration Team of promising leaders who rotate in our global headquarters every eight months for intense training and hands-on brand building. We anchor the program to three pillars of digital excellence -- listening, engaging and inspiring & transforming. Digital dualisms are central to the three pillars as well as our overall training program. Here are the big ones:

Stimulation vs. integration: Should digital be stand-alone or integrated into all aspects of marketing? Top CMOs proclaim in speeches that the era of "digital marketing is over." Or that "everything should be digital." Well, yes and no. We ebb and flow against the stimulation/integration tension depending on context. Stimulation is paramount if you are moving too slow, burdened by bad habits, or a step or two behind technological realities. After all, it takes real effort -- even "sparks" -- to prime change in large organizations. At the same time, we also must obsess with "integrating" these new realities in the core mix. For example, a big part of my job is to ensure digital is embedded in our "Brand Building the Nestle Way" framework and program. Leadership is about constantly revising where stimulation ends and integration begins.

ROI vs. intuition: My favorite expression is "trust your inner consumer." Yes, we need numbers and analytics and a solid business case, but isn't some of this pretty obvious? Sometimes the numbers will move us forward; other times we need to appeal to common sense. The key is to not get lost in "analysis paralysis." How, for instance, do we rationalize proper investment in mobile? On the one hand, we can dive into an endless supply of data, growth projections, or a third or fourth helping of "mobile is here" eMarketer or Forrester reports. On the other, we can just ask our executives to try to talk to or interact with our brands via a mobile device. Indeed, we're all active mobile consumers ourselves.

Enabling vs. gatekeeping: Leaders in the digital age need to open doors and help brand builders envision new possibilities. In some cases, we need to be tireless evangelizers for new directions and ideas. At Nestle, my main goal is to "help markets win," so enabling is critical. At the same time, digital leaders have fiduciary responsibilities to ensure we're being responsible, compliant and not putting the firm at risk. From social-media guidelines to privacy and data policies, there are key areas where gatekeeping is non-negotiable. Again, we must manage the tension.

Formal vs. informal power: Hierarchy will always matter in large enterprises, but the growth of social media is shining new light on "informal power." For example, more companies are deploying social media internally -- at Nestle, we have one of the largest deployments of Salesforce Chatter, involving over 200,000 employees -- and this is creating new dynamics of influence. Lesser known voices are rising to the top on the strength of great ideas and new skills, from collaboration to sharing. As I assess talent, I obviously can't ignore rank or experience, but I also pay very close attention to less formal dynamics of value creation such as how my team members share, collaborate or respond to questions from others.

Global vs. local: Those of us who work in large decentralized companies can relate to this one. Local ownership brings so many benefits -- intimacy with the market, flexibility and more. And yet in a digital world everything blends. Search engines, Twitter or Wikipedia rarely follow our desired borders of what's local and what's global. Despite the digital wonders of targeting and addressability, everything is co-mingling, even when there's a crisis. This is why social-content management tools are increasingly important; they allow you to manage work flow, cross fertilize content from one market to the next. Think local, but never forget global.

Collaboration vs. chaos: At Nestle, we're constantly testing new models of collaboration, from intranets to our internal social network. But experiments can quickly divert into chaos and confusion, and I've had my share of humbling failures with "collaboration" experiments in other companies before assuming my current role. Digitally fortified leaders need to be ever-vigilant in keeping these things on track. We need to foster collaboration and live it ourselves, but we also need to know when to step in to reset, reverse course or even outright abandon an experiment.

Scale vs. agility: "But will it scale?" is one of the most repeated questions in business. And for good reason. Scale matters, whether around media buying, vendor choices or agency selection. But what is the fine line between scale and speed, or scale and agility? The tension can't be resolved. It needs to be managed.

Filling vs. creating: Business leaders in pursuit of advancement often look to "fill" positions that eventually open up. This will never change, but in today's disruptive reality organizational models are far from static, and just about everyone is trying to figure out how to adapt to new realities. Inevitably, this allows leaders to "create" opportunities for themselves -- new roles that didn't exist before. The key is to identify and articulate the unmet needs in advance. At Nestle, we've sought the right balance between filling vs creating as we advance our digital roadmap and nurture talent.

As business people and marketers, we've been trained to find issues and fix them. As leaders in our new digital reality, we need to embrace a simple truth: tensions are good. Don't try to resolve them: become great at managing them.

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