Disrupting the Disruptors: How Incumbent Leaders Can Beat Challengers at Their Own Game

By Katherine LaVelle

Sep. 13, 2019

Leading companies today embody the concept of “disruptor.” They are fast-growing, digital players that are introducing innovative new business models and revenue streams and forcing incumbents to rethink their businesses.tuition reimbursement

Businesses are on track to spend nearly $1.2 trillion on digital efforts this year as they seek a competitive edge over their peers, according to IDC research. These top companies typically have leaders at the helm who are helping redefine how businesses and customers interact.

It’s time we stop focusing on what disruptors are doing and instead shift our attention to how other companies can compete. Legacy companies with the right leadership and stakeholder priorities supersede disruptors. In fact, traditional players have a significant opportunity to transform their companies and their C-suite to make a lasting impact and respond to the disruptive forces around them.

As with any big reward, risk is required. It requires a new way of thinking and a new way of doing things from the top down. The C-suite, the most crucial piece of the puzzle, must leave status quo leadership styles behind and learn new skills to compete in this age of disruption.

Where Is the Pressure Coming From?

Beyond introducing new business models and harnessing innovative technologies, disruptors have changed the playing field of consumer expectations. According to research by my organization, Accenture Strategy, 74 percent of C-suite leaders say the disruptive impact of constantly shifting customer demands has increased and has added considerable complexity to the business landscape.

Coupled with these shifting customer expectations is a set of stakeholders with specific expectations of company leaders, according to a recent report from Accenture Strategy titled “Whole-Brain Leadership: The New Rules of Engagement for the C-suite.” The report, released this past June, is based on interviews with 200 C-suite executives and surveys of more than 11,000 employees and consumers globally.

Changing the C-Suite DNA

With these disruptive forces converging on the C-suite, leaders must respond to the tides of change both by doing things differently and doing different things. Reskilling to change the DNA of leadership is now crucial to building enduring businesses and achieving competitive agility.

The majority (89 percent) of today’s C-suite leaders hold business, science or technology degrees and have honed “left-brain” skills — like critical reasoning, decision-making and results-orientation. Furthermore, 65 percent say their “right-brain” skills are weakest and recognize the need to strengthen their right-brain skills — including empathy and intuition — for a well-rounded “whole-brain” approach. Not only is adopting a progressive whole-brain leadership approach good for building diversified thinking and decisions, it’s also good for the bottom line. Our research shows a correlation with stronger financials — 22 percent higher revenue growth and 34 percent higher profitability growth (as measured by EBITDA) — for those companies using a whole-brain approach today.

Adopting a Whole-Brained Approach

C-suite leaders can unlock a whole-brain approach to leadership that applies new, richer depths of left-brain skills with more tangible applications of right-brain skills and secure the future of their companies by:

  1. Addressing the skills gap: Changing the mix of leaders at the top of companies will help address the current skills gap. Today, 9 in 10 C-suite executives are already taking action by using organic and inorganic ways to tackle the problem. Over half (55 percent) of leaders are currently reskilling C-suite members, and 46 percent are bringing in new C-suite talent from outside their organization.
  2. Redefining traditional leadership: Customer expectations demand a new type of leader, as this group has a clear view of what they think are important skills and behaviors for C-suite leaders to possess. Leaders need to pivot and develop a leadership style that balances traditional, left-directed skills, right-directed skills and human-centered capabilities.
  3. Driving change deep and wide: Proactively ingraining right- and left-brain skills into the leadership of organizations is crucial to longevity and competitiveness. The C-suite must build these balanced skills and use them at both the organizational and individual level. They also need to plant seeds for the future by building this required skillset into their recruiting strategy.

Disruptors are forcing incumbents to challenge the status quo, pushing them to look outward to unlock growth and value, all while surviving waves of disruption. Through a new leadership mindset that balances left-led analytical thinking with a right-led human centered compass, it’s possible for incumbents to disrupt the disruptors.

Katherine LaVelle is a managing director and North America lead for talent and organization at Accenture Strategy.

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