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Make a digital vision real by learning and adapting along the way

Investing in people and role-modeling the company’s vision creates a culture where employees do their best work because they feel confident about making appropriately bold moves and have a willingness to make mistakes and learn from them.

A successful digital transformation requires a bold vision. But, as Alain Bejjani, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim, explains, bringing that vision to life requires leadership to “walk the talk” and an all-in commitment to building a learning culture.

The power of a vision, and how to make it work

We took the initiative, a few years ago, of defining an ambitious 25-year strategic direction for our business. Will things pan out exactly like we’re expecting? Almost certainly not. But now that we have defined the broad vision and ambition, we have set the tone we would like the organization to adopt. We can course-correct and adapt specific strategies as we embark on this journey. To support this ambition, we reward those who define bold targets for themselves by aiming to disrupt their own businesses, before others do so.

It’s crucial to remember two things, however. First is that a vision that is not anchored in reality is meaningless. It needs to be driven by a clear rationale: an unfulfilled need, a solution, a new opportunity, or a challenge to be resolved. The rationale that anchors the vision is the foundation for a practical strategy.

Second, the real difference between an effective vision that drives the business and one that flounders is often leadership—more specifically, leaders who are able to see past their own agendas or biases, and communicate a clear, compelling “why this, why now” to all stakeholders. These leaders need to be great role models, because without role modeling and inspirational leadership, people across the organization will not change their behaviors to support the vision. People need to see senior leaders “walk the talk.” Otherwise, their words lose credibility, and their ability to inspire, influence, and transform is restricted.

How to build a culture that learns from mistakes

The critical elements to architecting a business that can learn and quickly adapt to disruption include encouraging curiosity and cultivating an open and learning mindset. Humility is an essential trait in this transition, and a necessary condition for continuous learning, upskilling, and reskilling. Cultures that promote openness and trust remove barriers and facilitate agility in its truest sense. This manifests in our people as a willingness to engage, and lessens the fear that they will be judged as not being good enough when they fail. In turn, teams better understand the value of having an open mindset and being adaptable because they recognize the rewards.

Learning needs to be seen across the organization as an opportunity and perhaps even an imperative—it is not a threat. People need to learn from multiple sources, including customers, each other, competitors, and other industries. We encourage our employees to be in the flow of global ideas on topics of relevance to their respective businesses, by meeting with companies that are prominent in those sectors, attending leading global forums, publishing articles, and participating in interviews. We also host a Majid Al Futtaim Talks speaker series at our Leadership Institute, in order to continue exposing our people to global thinkers and best practices.

Another important element in developing a learning culture is having leaders who encourage risk taking, which sometimes leads to mistakes. In digital transformations, we are doing things that we cannot know for sure will deliver results, especially in the short term. This represents a big bet on the future of any business, so we drive forward, learn, and adapt along the way. This includes being comfortable with giving up on things that we’ve invested in and become very good at when necessary, in order to develop new capabilities in areas that are out of our comfort zone.

Mistakes are extremely valuable when they are the outcome of having done your best, especially when people learn from them so they don’t make the same mistake again. I like to think we don’t make many of the same mistakes at Majid Al Futtaim, because we put in the hard work and strive to do our best, which means there is an opportunity for us to experiment even more.

Going all-in on upskilling at scale

We believe the surest way to future-proof our business is investing in our people’s capabilities and skills. Many organizations partner with leading educational institutions and sponsor their top talent to attend courses. We decided to invest in our own schools and created the Leadership Institute, which comprises three schools—The School of Leadership Development, School of Analytics & Technology, and School of Great Moments—each with a tailored, evolving curriculum that addresses specific needs and a combined focus on sharing best practices and developing skills for all of our “MAFers.”

Each of these learning organizations has a dean who reports into the human capital department. We have designed the programs based on adult learning principles to maximize impact, for example, “just-in-time” rather than “just-in-case.” In essence, MAFers attend leadership programs at critical junctures in their career, such as when embarking on a new role, or attending analytics programs before starting work on a relevant initiative. We embrace experiential learning where courses take place both in formal sessions as well as in the field, through real projects of strategic relevance to Majid Al Futtaim.

Balancing the short- and long-term

The most fulfilling things in life remain those with long-term payoffs. Think of it this way: putting your kids through school is a long-term investment over many years, so how much sense would it make to start asking “when will I get the return on my investment” when your kids are still in fifth grade?

When it comes to seeing a digital transformation through, you have to be practical. This means you need to have one eye on the telescope—an ambitious vision—and the other eye on the microscope, which are the short-term developments where you have to adapt as you go. This healthy balance is reflected in our corporate governance too, where our boards are almost by definition more likely to think long-term, whereas our management teams are keen to deliver short-term results.

To avoid extreme short-termism and to find the appropriate balance, we role-model the behaviors we believe are most conducive to the long-term performance and health of our businesses. For example, we are putting in place new metrics and measurement approaches to assess investments in and performance of new digital businesses, as these require a different mindset from how we manage our current physical assets.

In order to maintain momentum toward long-term goals, it’s important to avoid “transformation fatigue.” Sometimes the actions that have had transformative results in the past don’t work as well in the future, or at a larger scale, and trying to use those same actions again is what most often causes fatigue for us. Or not realizing why another transformation wave is warranted when the previous one hasn’t fully landed. So, we try to take the organization along as we scale up and accelerate our actions, and keep the level of engagement and ownership very high across the business.

Digital transformation will soon become a redundant phrase, and simply a new way of doing business in a world with seamless integration of physical and digital. We will, however, need to run twice as fast just to keep our leading position in the industries and markets where we operate.

About the author(s)

Gemma D’Auria is a senior partner in McKinsey’s Dubai office, and Hamza Khan is a partner in the London office.

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