Rethinking ‘feral leadership’ in a post-digital world


In a short time, “digital transformation” has changed from a revolutionary term to an evolutionary term. And, as a result, the definition of what I call “feral leadership” has changed as well.

As I originally defined it, feral leadership was metaphorical with a feral cat. By this I mean that C-level managers, whether technical or not, have become domesticated and never really operate out in the wilds where the real customers roam. They’re used to being fed data (as it’s called in many cases), as opposed to scavenging for their own food (insights).

OK. End of beating that metaphor to death.

The concept of feral leadership (or lack thereof) has been around since well before the digital age, as anyone who saw Death of a Salesman or Glengarry Glen Ross knows. Some executives lived in the field while others simply phoned it in.

What compounds the problem is that some executives have been under the illusion that they are close to the customer based on who they are selling the product to. For example, in the media business, one could get comfortable thinking that advertising agencies are the customer because they buy broadcast advertising for a major company. Or that healthcare technology vendors think healthcare providers are the customer because they deploy the technologies.

Adding to that is that anyone who has read call reports from salespeople knows they can be some of the greatest works of fiction.

What true feral leaders understand is that the ad agency or the provider is not really the customer. In the case of media, the real customer is the audience seeing the ads and buying the products. In healthcare, the real customer is the patient, and the provider simply serves as an intermediary in that trust and value chain.

This all seems so obvious until you conduct focus groups of real buyers and see the looks in the eyes of sellers when they learn there is a complete and total disconnect with the mind of the true buyer. I see this all the time when healthcare technology vendors watch a panel of patients discussing their experiences with clinical or remote technologies. It’s no different when media sellers learn about how consumers actually buy mobile phone services or running shoes versus what ad agencies buy.

I had an interesting conversation with a patient advocate yesterday who told me that the disconnect is even more difficult in healthcare because “everyone considers themselves a patient of some sort” and thus they have the misperception that they inherently know patient engagement and satisfaction.

The challenge is that in a post-digital world “the wilds” have changed. By “post-digital” I mean that we have gone well beyond the transformation of forms to PDF files or being able to order products in a self-service fashion online. As I’ve written in the past, post-digital refers to a world of highly unstructured data where the most important insights can’t be culled from registration forms or relational databases.

The “wilds” are now found in decision-based conversational platforms where the customers seek peer-to-peer advice on the efficacy of products, services and the vendors that sell them. In essence, customers are “talking behind your digital back.”

A feral customer strategy can be delegated to social media listening teams, but that again adds another layer of filtering that results in the domestication of the enterprise leader and distances them even further from the true outside world.

The alternatives admittedly take hard work. It requires a dedicated effort to move from monitoring your personal Facebook feed for the latest news about Trump or your favorite sports team to studying such platforms as TweetDeck to track, unfettered, what’s being said in the hunting grounds about your product or service. And more important, to become an active participant in those feral communities to personally sway negative sentiment to positive.

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