Leading through Digital

Steve Westgarth
8 min readAug 29, 2023

Rachel Neaman and Steve Westgarth had the good future fortune to meet at a recent meeting of the digital non-executive directors network. Steve is the Global Head of Engineering at Haleon where he focusses on the development of applications that enable Haleon drive forward its mission of enabling Global Healthcare with humanity. Rachel is a digital transformation specialist, non-executive Director, business advisor and executive coach.

In this our first collaborative post Rachel and Steve talk about Digital being at the heart of every company and explore why every board needs to include Digital skills!

Steve

This week I had the pleasure of going to see Les Misérables at the Sondheim theatre. Apart from the undisputed fact that Les Mis is the best show ever written (in my opinion, but to be clear …. I am right in saying this) watching a show like this really hits home the importance of working together as a team. John Valjean is nothing without the amazing cast around him who completely make the show.

This has made me reflect on our role as technologists and how much of a team sport it is that we play. What we often forget is how important our wider team is outside of tech and the reliance we have on our business to be able to work effectively. The closer we get to our business the easier it is for us to understand what we are really trying to achieve, and it also helps us to understand and influence decisions that are being taken that directly affect our work.

Rachel

Because tech now touches everything we do — whether in our work or in our personal lives — and is the predominant medium in the world around us, it is blurring boundaries in a way we’ve not seen before. Our world is more connected, networked and social than ever before, and nothing stays static for long with technological developments accelerating at a remarkable pace. In the workplace, technology is now far broader than ‘just IT’ with its traditional focus on infrastructure, boxes and wires, and can no longer be siloed as a ‘back-office’ function. The more enlightened organisations have already understood this and are feeling the benefits. But many still lag far behind. The reality is that technology teams have as strategic a part to play in the business as sales, marketing and other traditionally customer-facing roles. And businesses that get this will have the competitive advantage.

Steve

One of the challenges I find is that often technology is seen simply as an enabler and as a result the involvement of digital leaders is an after thought once our business has concluded what the direction of travel needs to be. While traditional IT organisations have served our business in this way there is a core difference between IT enablement such as the provision of computer hardware and networking and digital enablement which in my view focuses on strategies to win in market. Digital leaders bring a wealth of skills and knowledge that can supercharge the delivery of outcomes if leveraged early in the decision making cycle.

Rachel

Productivity in an increasingly competitive global market requires innovation. And true innovation can only be achieved by business leaders and digital leaders working together to solve a common business problem. Co-creating solutions leads to much more effective outcomes. When I started working in government there was IT and there was e-comms (there were no digital services at that time) and the divide between them was huge. When the Government Digital Service was formed the cultural change needed to bring the old-school IT teams and the new digital leaders together was particularly challenging. But since then, bringing these two sides together as partners, each with their own areas of expertise and perspective but both focused on the best way to deliver for citizens, has completely transfromed the way government services are delivered.

Steve

For me valuing digital skills needs to start with the board. Boards have traditionally valued HR, Finance and legal skills as these skills are the foundational competencies of every business. As the world transforms placing technology at the centre of successful business differentiation it is logical that boards must ensure they develop a core competency in digital enablement. Looking at the top 10 largest companies reveals Apple, Microsoft and Google each taking a top position — 20 years ago none of these companies existed in the top 10 showing a fundamental shift towards the power of digital in value creation and yet if we examine the make up of the boards of the top 100 companies there is little evidence that to date companies have recognised the need to embed digital capability at the heart of strategy development.

Rachel

From my own personal experience of sitting on Boards, it is clear that digital competence is increasingly in demand. However the tendency is to recruit a dedicated ‘digital NED’ to fulfil that role, rather than ensuring that everyone on the Board has the necessary digital awareness to govern the organisation effectively. If every NED is expected to have a good grasp of finance, corporate governance and to some extent employment law, why not of digital? Given the transformative opportunities for a business of the right digital strategy — and the damage that the wrong one can do — this seems not only short-sighted but actively destructive. This is not to say that all NEDs should have deep technological expertise, but they do need to understand how current trends affect customerexpectations, ways of working and the market more broadly, and what these trends mean for the business. We now regularly hear the terms “AI”, “generative AI”, “large language models” (LLM), and “machine learning” (ML)used in businesses. How many Boards and exec teams have discussed whether or not to use Chat GPT without really understanding the difference between LLM, ML, and generative or non-generative AI? Who is advising them on the relative benefits and limitations of these technologies, the subtle nuances between them, and their relevance (or lack of) to the particular business? Jumping on the bandwagon of a popular new technology because others are using it is neither a very informed nor a particularly strategic way of running a business.

Steve

It could be argued that boards can access digital capability and skills without including individuals with these skills as part of their membership. I would however suggest that this approach fundamentally fails to acknowledge the existential crisis that companies face if they do not get their digital strategy correct. The idea of suggesting that boards can access finance, HR or legal advice without embedding these skills within the board membership would seem odd — I would argue therefore that building a digital muscle at board level is critical if companies are really serious about competing within a digitally enabled economy.

Once the board has concluded that a digital muscle is necessary the question must be asked where should this competency come from. In recent years we have seen companies struggle to embed cyber security knowledge with a huge shortage of skilled individuals with the right qualifications; I would suggest the same applies for digital skills. This is not a skill set that individuals should be “learning” following a successful business career — this is a skill set that requires a lifetime of commitment, enthusiasm and understanding for technology and how it can be used to enable organisational outcomes in ways that have not yet been imagined.

My view is that this is a role that technology professionals need to play; for example engineers, architects within organisations need to step up and take it upon themselves to understand what our organisations need to achieve and then come forward with the digital insight that must underpin organisational strategy.

One of the key reasons this must come from technologists is the we also know what needs to be true to make it happen in a secure, compliant and risk adverse way — technology risk aversion often results in IT being labelled “slow” but so often this is because technologists haven’t been given the opportunity to help solve the business problem — engineers are fundamentally problem solvers and when given the opportunity will show up with answers that help drive organisational agility while simultaneously managing and mitigating risk.

Rachel

If managing risk is one of the primary roles of a Board then surely understanding the risks associated with our use of technology must be an essential requirement for all Board members. One of the challenges for exec teams and Boards is making the leap from “technology is a specialised dark art I need to delegate to boffins and nerds” to “technology is a strategic tool that I need to understand to improve my business”. The right systems provide the data on which to model future strategy. Data analysts create the insights that improve products and services. Collaboration tools allow remote teams to work together in real time. All of this is now mainstream, so why are the people responsible for these technologies not included in strategic decision-making within the business as a matter of course?

Steve

One of the challenges I believe technologists have in driving credibility at board level is the lack of a standardised qualification that accredits an individual as a digital professional. Industries such as HR have successfully embedded professional standards into their core DNA with schemes such as CIPD leading the way in ensuring HR professionals have the right skills to drive organisational strategy. Similarly within the finance and legal sectors professional standards are widely accepted as a none negotiable requirement.

This isn’t true of the technology sector where often learned practice and experience is the measure used to assess competence.

Within tech the BCS are doing a great job of promoting BCS Fellowship as one way of demonstrating competency but right now the number of people and organisations engaging with this programme are incredibly small; this could perhaps be because the BCS traditionally has its routes in academia rather than in industry. One conversation that I am keen to promote within the digital arena is the need to overcome this challenge and move to a position where as an industry we set a minimum bar of professional standard and hold ourselves to account for ensuring professionals achieve this level of competency within all of our organisations.

Rachel

Raising the profile of technologists and the work they do is an important way of shifting perceptions. Digital awards like the DL100 can play a major role in this, highlighting the breadth of work that technology covers and the transformative impact it can have across sectors and industries. The more the language of technology becomes part of everyday business speak rather than a mysterious jargon incomprehensible to the ‘lay’ person the better. And one obvious way to do that is to showcase the impact technology and those that work with it have in our everyday lives, not as something esoteric but as a concrete part of the world we live in. Taking the mystique out of tech and demonstrating its relevance to every part of the business — not just as the function that provides support when the laptop crashes — as well as developing the skills across theworkforce that allows everyone to benefit from tech is the job not just of the CIO and CTO but of the Board and the entire C-suite too.

Steve

It is evident from speaking to colleagues that there is a huge amount of enthusiasm from within the technology sector to help support organisations with embedding digital strategy at all levels. If you’re reading this and are a current board member consider whether your own board has, or is developing a digital muscle or are you dependent upon advice outside of the board room? Is your boards digital muscle adequate to drive the transformation that will enable your organisation to be the most successful it can be in 2023 and beyond? Finally within your organisation how are you driving the professionalism of the technology industry and ensuring your digital leaders are ready to support the boards of tomorrow?

Thanks for reading! We’ve had so much fun creating this first collaboration! Please let me know what you think in the comments.

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Steve Westgarth

Steve 🏳️‍🌈 is the Global Head of Engineering at Haleon where he heads up the Software Engineering function.