Sunnie Groeneveld, Inspire 925, on digital leadership
8 min

‘Young people in particular can make valuable contributions to the digital transformation’

As an expert in digital transformation, Sunnie Groeneveld has her finger on the digital pulse of the Swiss economy. In the second part of her interview, she talks about how a book can be used as a tool for digital transformation and why the attitude of ‘age equals experience’ isn’t always right.

Sunnie Groeneveld, what does digital leadership mean to you?

A digital leader is someone who has a solid understanding of technology, enthusiasm, courage, curiosity and an ethos that their learning never really ends – we need leaders who can admit that they don’t have all the answers (yet). This level of authenticity is a strength, not a weakness. It signals openness and willingness to engage in dialogue, and shows that they are also prepared to be vulnerable. A tendency to be slightly paranoid about new digital innovations is also part of it, because you never really know where they could lead.

You are on various boards of directors. What do you think Swiss boards of directors need to do to stay on the ball from a technology point of view?

We need more expertise in technology and a broader range of ages on boards of directors. The attitude of ‘age equals experience’ is true in many cases, but not all, and especially not in the field of technology. Technological change is a very relevant issue for many companies, meaning that young people who help to shape this change can also make strategically valuable contributions.

For example, if someone was interested in mobile apps at the age of 17 when Apple launched the App Store in 2008, and five years later they were able to take on positions of responsibility in agencies, then that person is now 32 years old and a viable candidate for a board seat in a company that wants to begin a mobile-first transformation. Probably the best candidate, in fact! Over that same period of time, many older candidates would not have been able to develop the same close relationship with the technology or the corresponding strategic understanding of innovation – they were presumably employed in management roles and more involved in running the business at that time. Of course, we do also need management specialists with the relevant industry expertise, but that’s not the be-all and end-all of it. A good mix of knowledge is essential.

According to the website, with Inspire 925, you support transformation projects using ‘storytelling strategies to get employees excited about change’. Why are strategies such as this important for shaping digital transformations?

The first step in transformation projects is often quite trivial. It’s important to establish a common language internally and define the terms. What does digitalisation mean? What does digital transformation mean? They’re not the same thing. Digitalisation is simply translating a process that was formerly analogue into a like-for-like digital equivalent. Digital transformation, on the other hand, is about making significant changes to the customer experiences, processes and even business models.

‘An organisation needs be able to explain in one sentence why it is pursuing a transformation project.’

Sunnie Groeneveld

Depending on the corporate context, other terms such as AI or blockchain might come into play. All employees need to be clear on what these buzzwords mean in the context of their company, as their meanings can vary greatly. As an initial step, I work on establishing a common understanding of terms – to the point that it almost becomes pedantic.

By anchoring clear terms in an organised way throughout the company so that everyone knows whether we are talking about an adjustment to the business model or a change to the customer experience, this creates a central foundation on which to base the transformation.

The second step is to establish a clear ‘why’. An organisation needs to be able to explain in one sentence why it is pursuing a transformation project. This provides the raison d’etre on which all management summaries and PowerPoint slides can be based. Setting out a clear ‘why’ makes every initiative trackable and serves as the basis for the change narrative that managers communicate within their organisation.

Together with Christoph Küffer, you have relaunched the book ‘Inspired at Work’. It is a book of ideas ‘for greater engagement and innovation within a company’. What is your favourite method from the book?

In terms of impact, there are two: the LunchLottery is a scheme to randomly select and bring together employees over a lunch or (virtual) coffee. For small organisations, an Excel spreadsheet is enough for this initiative. For larger organisations such as Holcim, Lindt or SRG, an SaaS solution is available that I cofounded. This method promotes social connection and helps to foster informal relationships within these organisations – a key success factor for talent retention! We now know that the question ‘do you have a best friend at work?’ provides a lot of insight into how well employees are retained by a company.

The second method, feedback walks, I actually use myself in the Inspire 925 team. The idea behind it is to go for a walk outside as a pair. Line managers and employees tell each other three things that they think are going well and three areas where they believe the other person has room for improvement. The listener is only allowed to ask questions to help clarify the points being made. I’ve been doing this for a few years and I’m always positively surprised at how much I can take away from my team members. The important thing is to actually go outside. Sitting across from each other in the office doesn’t have the same effect.

While remote working is increasingly becoming part of a normal working day, it doesn’t leave much time for socialising, brainstorming or taking a breather – all of which ultimately make us more productive. When and how should companies and employees take time for your suggested methods?

Book: ‘Inspired at Work’

Sunnie Groeneveld and Christoph Küffer have collected 66 ideas and 15 case studies of innovative companies in this book (in german) to bring more inspiration and innovation to work life. The very specific suggestions are evaluated based on the planning workload, implementation effort and costs, and range from a simple walk-and-talk feedback session to a life balance bonus. The second, revised edition features humorous illustrations and is designed to be easily flipped through and put into practice.

Inspired at Work, Versus Verlag, CHF 34.–

Ultimately, it’s management’s responsibility to address the company culture. Our recommendations provide specific, often inexpensive ideas to this end. When and how a manager integrates the ideas into day-to-day work is best judged by them personally. The main thing is to set a good example. It’s better to do just one thing, but to do it right. Often, one small thing is enough to for a manager to show that they are invested in their team and would like to implement ideas to make them ‘inspired at work’.

Hand on heart, do you believe that a book alone can bring about changes in company culture, or is additional support needed? What would you advise companies?

Last year, we implemented a project with the Hirslanden Clinic in Zurich in which the book was the central tool. We have published an ‘Inspired at Hirslanden’ edition, which was developed jointly by clinic director Marco Gugolz and 60 managers in less than a day. I’ve noticed that if the concepts are adapted to a company’s conditions and supported by management across departments, they can really have an impact. The attitude of managers is a key part of this and sets the tone for the project.

Last but not least: what do you think Swisscom can do to drive the digital transformation in Switzerland?

In terms of ‘run the business’, Swisscom plays a key role in enabling the whole of Switzerland to participate in the digital economy through connectivity alone – even the producers of Bündnerfleisch dried meat in the mountain villages of Graubünden can sell their products worldwide through an e-shop if they want to. For us in Switzerland, this is a matter of course, but in other countries, this isn’t yet the case. Thanks to Swisscom, we don’t have any digital boundaries within the country.

Swisscom Ventures also makes important contributions to the Swiss start-up scene and the development of companies. Even Henri Néstlé, Alfred Escher and Julius Maggi were once start-ups. The digital economy needs investors and bridge-builders if Switzerland is to continue to be successful in 100 years’ time.

Last but not least, we must not forget about our SMEs – there are more than 600,000 of them in Switzerland! We need to support them in their digital transformation and provide them with solutions that are relevant to them. This is important grassroots work that Swisscom is also involved in.

About Sunnie Groeneveld

Sunnie J. Groeneveld seized her opportunities early on: after a secondary school exchange in America, she studied economics at Yale. Back in Switzerland, she was the first managing director of the cross-industry location initiative DigitalZurich2025, now digitalswitzerland. Together with her business partner, she founded the consultancy firm Inspire 925 in 2013, which assists companies with their digital transformation. Today, in addition to her role as managing partner at Inspire 925, she is also a member of multiple boards of directors and head of the Executive MBA Digital Leadership programme at HWZ Zurich, which focuses on leadership skills in digital transformation projects.

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