How to build high performing teams for digital transformation?

Mature organisations often struggle with finding the right talent to lead their digital transformation initiatives as the characteristics they usually look for don't match what's needed for digital innovation. Let's change that.

Ott Niggulis

Working with our enterprise clients, we have seen that often disruptive talent capable of leading digital innovation is overlooked by the talent teams. Even if hired, they struggle to cope with and adjust to life in a big enterprise.

In order to help our clients better understand the characteristics they should be looking for, we analysed the founding teams of successful startups. These teams are disruptive by nature and have an intrinsic drive to change things, so they provide an excellent benchmark. The dataset that we chose comprises 100 startup founders that have used the Teamscope platform to analyze the deep-level characteristics of their team. We chose founders that have already moved past the seed stage, which indicates that in addition to having a strong vision, they also have the ability and drive to execute.

We were most interested in the deep-level characteristics of these people - that is, what are the values that really drive them forward and what are the personality characteristics that differentiate this subset from the rest of the population that we have analyzed.

What really motivates startup founders?

We rely on the Schwartz Theory of Basic Human Values to understand what really motivates people. As Schwartz explains it, values are the intrinsic motivational goals that transcend specific actions and situations, and the relative importance of values helps to understand how people make important decisions and what really motivates their actions. If people cannot act in accordance with their intrinsic values, they will quickly feel conflicted and demotivated.

Looking at the top 5 values of startup founders, it is clear that they care most about having the freedom of self-expression and self-development, having the autonomy to make decisions based on their own beliefs rather than the expectations of others, and living an exciting life full or new challenges and experiences. In addition, they scored very high on Kindness and Loyalty, which means that they care deeply about the people close to them and prefer working in a cohesive group where they can trust and rely on the people around them.

What to avoid when working with disruptive digital talent?

Looking at the other end of the scale, we can see the values that startup founders care about the least. This serves as a good indication of what are the things they would find most annoying in their surrounding environment and helps to understand how to shape a culture where disruptive talent can feel empowered and engaged.

As you probably would have guessed, startup founders don’t place much importance on following rules, maintaining the traditional way of doing things, and conforming to the expectations of others. Moreover, most founders scored low on Control, indicating that they don’t care much about having formal authority over other people, and low on Humility, indicating that they feel proud of their abilities and expect to get recognized for their accomplishments.

What are the personality characteristics that startup founders have in common?

In addition to values, we also analyze the personality characteristics of our users. When values reflect the motivational foundation of actions and decisions, then personality helps to understand how people interact with others and what kind of behaviours come more naturally to them. We rely on the Big Five Personality framework to analyze personality and also look at the 6 facets of each of the main personality dimensions to better predict specific behaviours and attitudes.

Further emphasizing the importance of Creative Freedom (the value is quite strongly correlated with the Openness to Experience personality dimension), we see that startup founders love working on intellectually challenging problems and play around with new and sometimes abstract ideas. Moreover, the Liberalism facet of Openness further reflects their readiness to challenge authority and convention and their sympathy for ambiguity, disorder, and chaos.

Low Vulnerability and low Self-consciousness scores reaffirm the common belief that high tolerance for stress, the ability to quickly recover from setbacks, and the ability to overcome the fear of ridicule and rejection is a common characteristic of successful startup founders.

What does this mean for more mature organizations?

Based on the data above, it is clear that the traditional corporate environment is not the place where startup founders would feel inspired and engaged, so companies need to make a conscious effort to hire, onboard, and manage disruptive digital talent. Based on a conversation that we had with over 30 HR leaders at the HR Core Lab conference, we learned of three main strategies that can help corporates in that area:

Build a creative space

Building innovation labs and in-house accelerators are becoming increasingly popular, and with good reason. Disruptive talent needs a different environment compared to operational leadership, and companies should embrace and encourage that diversity. The creative space should encourage innovation and risk-taking, and buffer people from the rules, restrictions, and power dynamics of large and mature organizations.

Differentiate your talent acquisition strategy

Several HR leaders mentioned the importance of having a different talent acquisition strategy for these creative hubs. The characteristics that help people succeed in the operational side of the organization are not the same as the competencies and motivation that drives innovation. Having a clear understanding of the motivation, behavior, and competencies that disruptive teams have in common helps to shape that strategy and helps the organization hire talent that they would normally not recognize.

Find leaders that can help bridge the differences

To help the creative lab have a meaningful impact inside the organization, it’s critical to find project leaders that can help bridge the differences between the expectations of disruptive talent and the reality of a large enterprise environment. When discussing with HR leaders, the critical competencies that they highlighted were:

  • Customer Focus - is able to build strong relationships with clients, pays close attention to their needs and delivers results that meet their expectations;
  • Adaptability - is able to work effectively in changing environments, circumstances, priorities, and people;
  • Organizational Awareness - can navigate complex power dynamics, policies, and processes in organizations and their environment of stakeholders.

Understanding the differences between the motivation of disruptive digital talent and the reality of the corporate environment, and having a clear strategy that helps to bridge these differences is critical for the success of digital transformation projects. Talent analytics can help the leadership team better understand these differences and empowers the HR team to build a successful talent acquisition and leadership development strategy for these projects.

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