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Leadership development August 2, 2021

In corporate transformation, learning is a leadership imperative

Multiethnic business people discussing charts and graphs
Business research can guide executives past common pitfalls and create wins for global teams.

Over the last two decades, the automotive industry has undergone a profound transformation. A number of factors have driven this disruption: Regulators have pushed for emission-free, carbon-neutral production that recognizes the threat of climate change. Major cities have increasingly adopted ride-sharing programs, in deference to the same. Technological developments such as machine learning, big data, and artificial intelligence have given consumers wholly different expectations of what the mobility sector can deliver – namely, a data-driven connectivity that shapes the world within, surrounding, and influencing the driving experience. It’s “eascy,” an acronym coined by a team of auto experts at the professional services firm PwC for a mobility industry that is electrified, autonomous, shared, connected, and updated yearly.

“Eascy” has not been easy, of course. Market dynamics, customer needs, and regulatory requirements are complex and change rapidly. Workforces need to be re-skilled to meet the demands of new technology-driven systems. And in the last 18 months, COVID-19 made it all more volatile, demanding that companies work in ways they never have before.

So how can executives acquire new knowledge, language, and problem-solving skills to effectively move teams into a position from which they can successfully navigate this modern landscape? And how can they prioritize this learning and skills development for themselves and their teams, even as they manage the demands of their current strategies and operations?

In 2020, Daimler Corporate Academy led a program team comprised of internal and external experts in executive education (including ESMT Berlin), branding, and change management to support Daimler executives with the frameworks and tools for leading their teams through this transformation. The results provide important insights for executives – within and outside the automotive sector – on how they can lead teams through transformation processes.

Develop a common language of transformation. Daimler is a German multinational with three large divisions, approximately 290,000 employees, and production and service locations throughout the world. Like other global corporations, it must contend with organizational structures and processes that are optimized for local independence and agile response. However, developing a common framework and language on the transformation process is not contrary to the wealth and strength of division-driven stories. For example, the program team ensured that learning formats within the initiative included randomly generated groups (so-called “transformer groups”) that were irrespective of division, region, or management level as well as unit-specific groups (so-called “intact teams”). The transformer groups shared and deepened an understanding of what was at stake, while the intact teams could root those broader perspectives in the local and divisional context.

Equip leaders and teams with the right tools. A shared understanding of the problems ahead are not enough alone to make implementation of solutions a success. Moving from a learning focus (led by educators and consultants) to an application focus (led by the executives and the teams themselves) is key, but both are necessary. Business research, for example, can shine a spotlight on the typical challenges of a transformation process (e.g., resistance to change, psychological safety concerns, translating ideas into action) as well as the best practices and success strategies that address those challenges and help companies meet their objectives. In this case, it meant specifically examining and learning from external business challenges, concepts, and practices and thereafter providing division leaders with actionable tools and practices for reimagining products and services within the new framework.

Embrace digitalization. Leading a global learning experience, especially within uncertain times like these, requires a certain ambidexterity – to be organizationally aligned and yet highly adaptable. For example, the coronavirus pandemic meant that online learning took center stage for many global corporates, displacing the usual emphasis on in-person workshops, training, and collaborative learning processes as well as challenging outdated misconceptions about the value of e-learning. ESMT already had developed expertise in online and blended delivery of executive education programs, joining other leading global business schools in an edtech platform in November 2018. In the initiative, moving the emphasis to online learning was a boon to the company’s collaborative process. Digitalizing the learning experience brought together far-flung teams cost-effectively and allowed for greater flexibility via module-based delivery.

In all respects, executive education can make a difference. It draws on an already well-researched wealth of executive knowledge on how to transform leadership and organizational culture. It offers case studies and best practices on how to develop a shared language across the organization on what the transformation is to achieve, as well as insights on common pitfalls. And it can help companies anchor that knowledge and practice in cross-cutting transformation teams and their initiatives. Of course, none of this is possible without an organization-wide but executive-level commitment to transformation. Executive education is an important – more than that, vital – partner in this work.

This article was originally published by Forbes on July 26, 2021, and republished with permission. 

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