// 05.19.2020

introducing stefanie wolff from young digital leaders.

Coronavirus has accelerated a worldwide digital transformation. Our work and lives revolve around virtual ways of working, buying, meeting, talking and playing. Companies are rapidly shifting to ways of working that embrace the digital technologies of today, so they can continue to operate, communicate and innovate. As Founder of Young Digital Leaders Stefanie Wolff sums up, “the necessity for digital innovation has become clear”.

Young Digital Leaders is a consultancy firm that integrates internal consultants into large organizations to provide successful, sustainable digital transformations. Whilst Young Digital Leaders believe that companies with a rich history are crucial foundations for progress in society, they also know that traditionally structured organisations are hard to transform digitally, and the current methods they use are often flawed.

So, using selected young talent who are carefully matched to the chosen business, Young Digital Leaders aims to use external perspective and skills to transform from the inside. And after a period of proven results, the consultant goes on to stay with the company, ensuring longevity and effectiveness.

We talked to Wolff about the hurdles of digital transformation, the growth mindset and how her perspective has changed because of the pandemic.

Why did you start Young Digital Leaders?

Seven and a half years ago, I started as a Management Trainee at Unilever with the ambition to become a CEO of my own business one day. I wanted to learn how an entrepreneur could add real value to the world by challenging the status quo.

When I gained a role that included leading a team, I believed it was my chance to make that difference. I quickly noticed, however, that it was much more complex than I thought. I was busier with managing people than actually creating value whilst maintaining the system rather than changing it.

This realisation got me thinking about how I could transform the system for the better from within the organisation, but I struggled with classical silo-structures and formalized decision making. I wasn’t able to realise the change I wanted, so I quit my job.

The following year, I talked with countless entrepreneurs, worked in different startups and got to know much more about the world of innovation and digitalisation. I decided to re-school myself from corporate manager to start-up growth hacker through a combination of education and hands-on experience. I wanted to be able to change companies for the better through a combination of inside knowledge and outside perspective.

And that’s the idea that started Young Digital Leaders. We empower young entrepreneurs to go into large organizations and ‘accelerate from within’, and they then stay with that organisation after a period of demonstrating positive results. I believe the combination of corporate understanding and advancing the core of classical organizations through carefully selected, exterior talent is critical for success, especially in a digital world.

Why do larger companies struggle with digital transformation?

Large companies are well aware that they need to take action to stay relevant today and in the future. And I see two trends that come from this. Some set up an external accelerator or start-up in a different environment, with different people and processes so they can move quickly. Or they set up an internal innovation team, start re-schooling their own employees and develop new products and services with new ways of working.

There are, however, struggles with both avenues. The accelerator/external startup will face difficulties when scaling up, and potentially face problems synergising with the mother company given there are different types of people, ways of working and processes implemented.

And for internal innovation teams, questions such as how to speed up and how to get the desired results quickly may arise. It’s hard and takes more time than many think to create new ways of working that change peoples’ behaviour. A training course often doesn’t cut it.

On your website, you mention the mindset needed for digital transformation. What is that mindset and why is it important?

The fixed mindset is what we typically find in classical organizations; working towards a result in a linear direction through set operational activities. A growth mindset is different. It’s still working towards a result, but it embraces experimentation as a way to reach that aim. As toddlers we have a growth mindset; we learn by trial and error. But as we grow older, we are conditioned to do ‘what is right’.

Since the world is changing faster than ever before, however, one needs to adapt much faster to the surroundings. What was right may not be right anymore. And you only know what is right in this changing environment by continuously probing, checking and adjusting your approach and, sometimes, your goals and expectations.

Young Digital Leaders also works towards sustainable results. Do you think digital transformation can lead to unsustainable results if not done correctly?

Absolutely. As I noted before, only striving after quick results is often the root cause of this. The first results may be easily achieved if you choose to set up an accelerator or external start-up. But integrating these new ways of working, processes and products/services at a later stage with current operations can be a nightmare. And whilst most companies agree that (digital) innovation is crucial and growing, most profits still come from more traditional parts of a business. So, when things get adverse, guess where the budget cuts are made first…

Young Digital Leaders was started in 2016, so you’re still very much a startup yourself. How is the pandemic affecting the company at this early stage?

Young Digital Leaders just celebrated its third birthday, so we are indeed still a young company. Luckily, we were ready to grow fast and have created a very healthy business. And since our perspective is very much long-term, our business has thankfully not been hit too hard.

The pandemic has, however, brought about a lot of uncertainty, and I have noticed large organizations putting long-term projects, large investments and human capital solutions on hold. This has definitely affected us. And as Young Digital Leaders has grown rapidly compared to last year, we cannot ask for governmental support. It’s a kind of luxury problem.

Do you feel it presents any opportunities for Young Digital Leaders? In many ways, coronavirus has given momentum to a worldwide digital transformation. Everyone is working remotely, and that’s setting a precedent for how people may work in the future. Do you think it reinforces your business’ mission?

The necessity for digital innovation has become clear. Large organizations cannot deny its importance anymore. It’s a must-have. Online businesses are booming at the moment and customers are getting used to buying and experiencing nearly everything online.

And as you said, everyone is working remotely. We successfully onboarded two of our newest Young Digital Leaders online, something that has encouraged us to believe that the coaching and training we offer our Young Digital Leaders can be presented as a digital programme.

How has your personal mindset changed because of the outbreak?

Personally, I feel we are getting a lesson in humbleness. Before the outbreak, the sky was the limit. In my belief, this also did something to our morale and values. I find it very interesting how quickly we got used to limiting our freedom and what the outbreak has done with our sense of community –  we are in this together. I also notice that people work harder and complain less. There has been a dramatic change in mentality, and I believe it is here to stay. In my opinion, that might not be a bad thing.


Next read: introducing nick velten from stimmt.