Why all non-executive directors need to be strong digital leaders

4 October 2018 By Guest writer Jonny Ross

Why all non-executive directors need to be strong digital leaders image

Non-executive directors need to understand digital or they will fail the companies they serve. In this blog, Digital Strategist Jonny Ross from Fleek Marketing explains why he believes retirement is the perfect time to get digital.

I’m frustrated. It’s now twenty years since I set up the UK’s top sunglasses e-commerce site in the early days of online retail. Two decades later, digital is now integral to everyone’s lives, and data science is influencing many purchase decisions.

Yet I still go into meetings with board members and c-suite directors who don’t get digital. Huge opportunities for using digital to massively improve operations, productivity and revenue are being missed – often because young, junior staff are driving the digital agenda. They have technical skills but lack the strategic overview to make any real impact.

Here’s an example. A well-known clothing retailer that owns a number of brands recently brought me in to up-skill their PR team on using digital metrics to track campaigns and produce board reports to justify resources.

Now, this is a big company – they have over 3,000 staff at head office alone. But frustratingly, while the social, PPC and SEO teams had access to analytics, the PR team didn’t. If the PR team want to tweet, they have to go through the social department. They have a separate data team. It’s bizarre! The teams work in silos, data isn’t shared and there are no common goals. It took us three months internally to get Google Analytics access!

The problem is, the directors at the top just don’t get digital. If they did, the PR team would already have access, they would understand how it all relates – everyone would be working towards the same common goals.

Why does this matter?

Just look at all the big retail collapses. From HMV and Blockbuster in the early days to House of Fraser, Homebase and Maplin this year. What they all had in common was a failure to see the opportunities in digital. Companies nowadays that aren’t ahead of the game with digital technology and data science will quickly fall behind those who are.

But for this to happen, companies need strong digital leadership. Non-executive directors need to understand digital and be driving digital transformation from the top down.

These companies get it, and the impact digital is having for them is massive:


Walmart stocks its stores with beer and pop tarts before a hurricane, because it knows from previous sales data that people stock up on these items. Digital technology here is driving sales and efficient stock management. It removes assumptions (for example, that people would be stocking up on water) and therefore makes better business decisions.


US retailer Target achieved $27bn revenue growth from 2002 to 2010, in large part due to growth in the baby-on-board market. A data analytics expert was brought in to implement a data-driven approach, which included using data to predict if someone was pregnant based on their spending habits, and offering them vouchers and incentives on baby products. Target famously spotted a teenager was pregnant before even her father knew!

Arla Foods

Manufacturing and farming have been among the slowest industries to fully embrace digital, and many producers are struggling in the current economic climate.

But dairy producer Arla is bucking the trend and achieving rapid growth. How? By embracing digital transformation across the organisation, driven from the top. For example, they track milk from farm to shelf using software that links to packaging and labelling, so customers know where their milk has come from.

As you can see, it’s really important for senior business leaders and non-executive directors to understand digital. There’s so many opportunities to be had if they could get digital to work better for them, throughout the whole company.

But most companies are still so far from this. My experience is that seven or eight out of 10 senior business leaders still don’t get digital, and it’s shocking.

I’m therefore delighted to be speaking at the Next-Up conference in November. I’ll be talking about the future of voice search – Alexa and Siri. The popular view is that 30% of all searches online will be made by voice by 2020. It will require rethinking everything, from search engine optimisation to customer service. I’m really passionate about giving experienced professionals the digital knowledge, skills and confidence to be strong digital leaders and push digital from the top down, not just the bottom up.

If you want to be a non-executive director, trustee, consultant or adviser – do you know what the implications will be for the companies you are advising?

Will you be attending the Next-Up conference? What are the main concerns or skills gaps around digital that you see in organisations?

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Written by Guest writer Jonny Ross

Jonny Ross is a Digital Strategist with Fleek Marketing, and is an SEO, digital marketing and social media expert.