CMO and Strategist Julie Roehm Shares Her Recipe for a Successful Digital Transformation

September 4, 2023, 7 months ago


CMO and Strategist Julie Roehm Shares Her Recipe for a Successful Digital Transformation

In today’s digitally-dominated world, it might come as a surprise to learn that more than 30% of businesses have not adopted a digital-first strategy and are not planning to do so. While a digital strategy is widely considered essential to a firm’s growth, key conditions must be met in order for digital transformations to take root and become successful. 

This was the topic of conversation between Julie Roehm and Ben Thompson on a recent episode of Thompson’s podcast, Strategy for Breakfast.

Julie Roehm is an award-winning marketer known for executing some of the most successful digital transformations of the past 25 years. Having worked in leadership positions at numerous major companies, Roehm has a unique perspective on what it takes to achieve transformative change in today’s business environment. 

During their conversation, Julie Roehm outlined what it takes for companies to develop digital-first strategies—and surprisingly, none of her requirements center around CIOs or IT departments. 

Find highlights from the interview with Julie Roehm below.   
Julie Roehm’s Transformational Career 

Julie Roehm earned her MBA from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business (known as Booth Chicago today) in the late 90s when the internet was just starting to be universally adopted. Though digital strategies were in their infancy, Roehm became a major proponent of digital transformations from the get-go.

“I've been doing this for over 25 years, I’ve probably been involved in about half a dozen transformations,” she says. “I would say that we were moving in a digital direction in every instance.” 

Roehm worked for a number of large, sometimes rigid companies in B2B and B2C markets, including American Airlines, Ford Motor Company, DaimlerChrysler, and SAP. This experience provided a balanced understanding of the challenges of implementing digital strategies across multiple sectors. 

“I certainly was part of a transformation for moving us to a cloud-based platform while we were at SAP and then really injecting some more digital tools into that,” she remembers “I was then at ABRA Autobody and Glass, which was a [chain of] collision shops, and I believe it was one of the few industries I could think of where the digital revolution seemed to have passed it by. And so we injected that there. And then of course, most recently at Party City.”

Julie Roehm’s track record of transformative successes has earned her many honors, including Marketer of the Year by BrandWeek, induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame, and the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Chicago Booth School of Business. She was recently named a Top Marketer of 2023 by OnCon Icon.

Despite her career success, Julie Roehm’s attempts at digitizing companies—and their entrenched C-suite executives—did not always go smoothly. She quickly learned the traits of companies that were ready to transform and signs that some others were not.    

The Conditions for Achieving a Successful Digital Transformation 

During her interview with Ben Thompson, Julie Roehm outlined three key indicators that a company is ready to implement transformational change. 

1. Pain
“The company has to be feeling some level of pain,” Roehm says. 

By pain, she means that a company’s operations are no longer functioning smoothly, which threatens losses or stagnation. When a company is experiencing pain, the executives are more likely to acknowledge that a change is needed, and they are more willing to take risks.

“It may sound horrible and morbid, but if the company is booking along and having record profits and there is seemingly nothing but blue skies ahead, it's really hard to make a transformation work,” she says.

2. Leadership in Lockstep
A digital transformation doesn’t just affect one or two departments. It’s a fundamental change that affects every employee and customer from a functional and cultural perspective. 

“You've got to have a lot of fortitude, and that means the team, especially the executive team, has to be in lockstep,” Roehm says.

To achieve a company-wide transformation, the entire company needs to be on board. If certain executives or managers are questioning the relevance of the transformation, fissures can form in the leadership and culture that derail transformative efforts (and waste major time and money). As Roehm puts it, “that fissure becomes the Grand Canyon after a very short period of time.”

Another reason that leadership needs to be aligned, according to Roehm, is that the road to achieving a digital transformation is not fixed. New tech, market conditions, and unexpected events create the need for constant readjustment. 

“All the best-laid plans are bound to be disrupted because of whatever, whether it's a pandemic, a supply chain issue, or something else, and you've got to be able to adapt to those,” she says. 

3. Communication
Digital transformations take years, and changes to the strategy are inevitable. This requires excellent communication among leadership and by leadership to staff. 

It’s not enough to agree on the aims of a transformation. Executives must remain aware of the progress and challenges faced by their departments and be open to communicating with others about them. 

“Constant communication—I would say over communication—is also how you perform a successful transformation,” Roehm says. This includes communicating about “wins, losses, and adjustments as well as lifting up the organization and making sure that they understand the reasons for what is happening.”

The consequence of poor communication is increased turnover, as staff can feel alienated, lost, or frustrated when they are not informed of (or not on board with) changes. Turnover puts a lot of stress on companies investing in a transformation and requires quick action. 

“[Turnover] doesn't doom a transformation, but it does mean you have to identify and go back in and triage pretty quickly,” she says.  

Fighting Digital Transformation Fatigue

One of the biggest threats to digital transformations is fatigue, or the inability to maintain the requirements outlined above. Transformations take years to pull off, and it isn’t easy to maintain morale and agility, especially at large companies.  

Julie Roehm suggests setting realistic milestones and celebrating those successes, however small.

“If your first win is so far out, that's where I think you lose people,” she says. “You've got to build a plan to have something that can be done within, in my estimation, the first six months. Something that can be launched, even something small, because that's how you bring an organization along. They've got to feel some sense of accomplishment.”

Focusing on the employee experience and team morale is also crucial for maintaining momentum and resisting turnover. While improving the customer experience is key, leaders should also explain to staff how the changes will improve their experience.

For example, When Roehm worked for a major retailer she transitioned to a digital POS system in brick-and-mortar locations. This could have led to confusion among staff who were not prepared for a change, but Roehm ensured that staff were well-trained and that they understood how the digital changes would improve their day-to-day. 

“When you boost the morale of your employees, every customer who walks through those doors feels it,” she says.

More Transformational Talks by Julie Roehm

Julie Roehm is keeping busy as an active member of multiple advisory boards. Among others, she is the Advisory Board Direct at the Digital Marketing Institute and the Customer Advisory Board Director at T-mobile. 

She’s currently seeking new executive or advisory opportunities at firms that meet her criteria for digital transformation, so we’re likely to see her name attached to many more successful transitions. 

To hear more from Julie Roehm on digital, personal, and business transformations, check out her podcast, The Conversational, where she speaks to the most successful business minds today on the transformations that changed their lives. 

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