What is digital leadership? Is it about connection, with customers, the organization and your own employees? Is it about initiating transformation and including the organization in it? It is clear that in the current economy, change is the standard. As a digital leader you have to love change, but at the same time stay in control; combining an external focus with an internal one. Daniel Gebler, CTO of Picnic, is a digital leader who thrives on growth and transformation.
Digital leadership took center stage during the first of four broadcasts of CIO TV, called Digital Leaders Boardroom, organized by ICT Media and Equinix. One of the guests in the studio was Daniel Gebler. A good opportunity to exchange ideas with this leader, who recently won a CIO Magazine Innovation Award for his innovative work at Picnic. This online supermarket started out as a humble start-up, but it didn’t take long for investors to get on board. Investment rounds took place in 2017 and 2019. The well-known electric delivery can be seen driving around in more and more Dutch cities. “Picnic is a tech company that delivers groceries. It is one of the possible implementations of our technology platform,” as Daniel Gebler once phrased it.
A growth mindset is essential for a digital leader, but also – and even more – for all employees and the entire organization, says Gebler: “Start-ups like Picnic are born with a growth mindset and maintain it by hiring ambitious entrepreneurial people. When scaling such a venture, the main challenge is to switch from a growth mindset by nature to growth mindset by nurture. The interesting learning is that growth mindset is actually a spectrum and you need staff on each level of this spectrum.”
The distinction between scale-ups and incumbents can also be seen in the field of digitization: “Many organizations try to move from a non-digital to a digital model, while Picnic looks at how its digital model can evolve further.” The CTO immediately comments on this: “The challenge is how to prevent digital legacy resulting from the digital transformation progresses. It is a huge, but also fascinating challenge that applies to both incumbents and start-ups.”
Technology in the lead
There are plenty of opportunities and challenges in the digital transformation. The question is what influence digital leadership can have on that transformation. Daniel Gebler: “Many organizations try to link digital leadership, which is reflected in a digital roadmap, to the business roadmap. That is not the case with Picnic, where there is no distinction between business and IT. Digitization and business are two sides of the same coin.”
“Today’s technology is tomorrow’s business opportunity”
The role of the CIO, or CTO, is therefore more important than ever. This is even more true for the many incumbents who decide to open a direct channel, where the consequences with regard to digitalization are significant. However, tech can also initiate changes. “Today’s technology is tomorrows business opportunity”, confirms Gebler. He outlines how in the past the CIO mapped out the strategy for the coming years, but now technology offers possibilities that the CIO can already realize ‘the day after tomorrow’.
People are essential
“But don’t underestimate the role of people”, Daniel Gebler immediately continues, “It’s people who build the technology. While good people will build good tech, the very best people will build exceptional tech that performs not only a bit better, but ten times better. In consequence, people operations and HR as business function should not be a stand-alone department but be part of your tech team.”
In an earlier conversation with CIO Magazine, he stated: “I think the most powerful organizational principle is to give ownership, freedom and responsibility to every employee. Leadership should therefore be nothing more than making adjustments here and there. Now that we have many teams, we have to start thinking about a different interpretation of leadership. As your organization grows, you can no longer know everyone personally and you have to structure more. Personally, however, I remain a strong supporter of as much freedom and responsibility for employees as possible.”
Learning from incumbents
Returning to the theme of digital leadership: doesn’t Daniel, who has been a ‘techy’ almost all his life, find it a bit strange that digital leadership as a new phenomenon has come into the spotlight? “You may indeed get that impression. After all, incumbents can learn a lot from the approaches and operating models that emerged in recent years in the start-up world. Yet that is not the end of the matter, because start-ups can also learn a lot from incumbents. Companies that have a long history went through numerous transformations. They have survived all of them, proving that they can indeed change. In any case, you can learn from the experiences of these companies.”
“Start-ups can also learn a lot from incumbents”
“I would like to add that transformations may also go wrong. Hence, run your transformational programs in a way that you can make a second and third attempt. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in the same basket.”
Several top Dutch CIOs have indicated that their digital transformation has reached a point where terra incognita has been reached. How does Daniel Gebler see this and what does it mean for his strategy and leadership? “The area is unfamiliar for both start-ups and incumbents… The strength of start-ups is that they find it less terrifying. In fact, we often embrace uncertainty since it provides opportunities and unlocks blue ocean strategies. And the beauty of this approach is that it works not only for start-ups but also for incumbents. I don’t believe in the mantra that innovation is easy for smaller companies and hard or even impossible for bigger or older ones. It is true that, being large, you need to innovate in a different way, but you certainly can do it. At Picnic we do even more innovation now in year 6, but our approach has certainly changed compared to year 1. There is only one thing to keep in mind: don’t stop innovating, since it is a muscle that needs regular training!”
Fast, faster, fastest
Speed is another important aspect of digital transformation. The question is how quickly an organization can transform. Daniel Gebler: “You need to form a small team that leads the transformation and create a culture of openness and make everybody aware that change creates opportunities for all of us. And then you need to ask the hard questions: how to keep the organization aligned? How fast can you run the transformation without overstretching it? Can you find people with the right skills? But another perspective is also possible. Compare your own speed with that of a similar company in China, for example, and then draw your conclusions… Don’t be satisfied too quickly, but don’t try the impossible either. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.”
Picnic, only a few years old, is already faced with competition: “There are new service providers who deliver within ten minutes. Despite the fact that they address a very different customer need, it is an interesting challenge and nice opportunity to rethink how to innovate our business model further.”
Picnic started out as a ‘milkman2.0’, but has developed into a disruptive force in last mile distribution. It now also focuses on fulfillment processes. “We are building a highly automated and fully robotized warehouse that allows us to serve even more customers. While this first generation automated warehouse goes live early next year, we are already working on the next generation. Innovation never stops and never sleeps!”
In the first broadcast of the CIO TV Digital Leaders Boardroom, Daniel Gebler discusses issues surrounding digital leadership, but also the democratization of innovation, Picnic’s new software and data architecture and its potential for the Dutch tech community. Karina Kuperus, partner at KPMG, outlines the context and challenges for contemporary digital leadership. Michiel Eielts, MD Benelux at Equinix and Hein Dekkers, Director Digital Acceleration Netherlands at Cisco share the ambitions and experiences of their organizations in the field of digital leadership. Watch it here:
About the Digital Leaders Boardroom
In every industry around the globe, organizations are setting the pace for growth, innovation and leadership by putting digital technology at the center of business strategy and competitive advantage. These are the digital leaders.
Equinix and ICT Media introduce to you the “Digital Leaders Boardroom: CIO TV” virtual event series where C-level executives from leading companies in The Netherlands will come together and discuss how they are embracing digital technology to thrive today and prepare for tomorrow.