Digital Transformation

Five lessons for Digital Transformation with Anna Foat 

Transform it Forward with Anna Foat

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has changed everything about the world we live in. Digital Transformation is no exception.

Transform it Forward podcast

In the first episode of the Transform it Forward podcast, we sit down with Anna Foat to dive into the role of digital transformation during a pandemic. We explore her expertise on change communications, plus how she managed to generate buy-in from customers and employees for new initiatives at Sun Life Financial.

Anna started her career at Blackberry Research In Motion (RIM), where she was on the business side closing deals with Visa, MasterCard, and IBM. She then moved to IBM as the worldwide Managing Editor of their mobile-first platform, leading digital content marketing strategy.

Today, she’s the Director of Global Digital Transformation at Sun Life Financial. In fact, Anna was recently named a Top 20 Woman to Watch in Technology.

As someone who has been recognized as a disrupter for a long time, Anna has valuable insights into how digital disruption will change moving forward, especially for large companies across the globe. Here are five key takeaways from our lively conversation with her.

1. When the market changes, brands will change with it (and quickly)

People generally believe that change is risky, and the status quo is safe. But COVID has revealed that doing nothing is often riskier than trying something new. The pandemic has forced things that were never going to happen, to happen (literally) overnight. At the same time, the roles of experts in society have been altered.

“COVID has taught us, even in these times, that epidemiologists are not public health, public health is not primary care, and primary care are not scientists. We need to collaborate together to solve these problems.”

This has caused a radical change in several areas. Anna gives the example of virtual healthcare, which has skyrocketed since COVID hit. The previous objections were forgotten, and the culture adapted to what was necessary with the technology that had already been there for years.

At Sun Life, Anna and her team understood the risk of not doing anything. Almost overnight, they overlaid paramedical providers who were offering virtual visits into their Lumino directory — a service offered to all Canadians. They also partnered with a virtual care company called Dialogue and offered it free to all members, simply because it was the right thing to do.

Essentially, COVID is the ultimate demand signal. Companies realize they must move beyond the innovator’s dilemma. It might push them out of their comfort zone, but it could also protect them for the next 10 years. This also means they must strike a balance between making money and making good — a tightrope that all brands now have to walk.

2. Break on through the silos to create real change

As a champion of that tightrope, Anna is the kind of person you want in your organization if you have any hope of disruption or transformation. She can empathetically look at all the sides of the problem, but challenge you to move beyond your current thought. That is the only way you’re able to move a company forward.

Anna took this concept (and a healthy dose of design thinking) and made it real for Sun Life. Just like any large corporation, Sun Life was siloed and struggling with internal transformation. Although there were big meetings with upper management and fancy PowerPoint presentations, Anna felt that nothing much was getting accomplished once the meetings adjourned.

She decided to shake things up. She invited people from all levels of the organization to mix with people from other teams. She gave them a real problem to solve, presented by the businessperson for whom this was a problem, without much instruction. This, after all, is how the company typically did business.

The teams developed beautiful diagrams and architecture, but none actually solved the problem because they didn’t have all the pieces to understand the problem. She tried it again, but this time included users and split the teams between business people and architects. The result was a resounding, “Why don’t we always work like this?!” Anna explains:

“You should always get requirements, work with the businesspeople and have a certain level of comfortable tension. We don’t have all the answers. They don’t have all the answers. Let’s not design it in a vacuum.”

3. Transformational change is a bus route

Although seeing those epiphanies is exciting, it’s difficult to keep the momentum alive long-term. People are always going to be scared of transformational change, making mistakes, or doing their jobs “wrong.” For Anna, it’s not about batting 1,000.

Here, she uses the analogy of a bus route. Not everyone is getting on the bus at the first stop. You might only have a handful of early adopters. By the second or third stop, it becomes less risky to hop on. Eventually, there are more people on the bus than off it and your mission is complete.

Axway’s transformation was quite similar but slightly different. The focus was placed squarely on the customer, not on the internal requirements. It gave us a little of a different perspective to understand how we would transform by making sure we spent every moment looking through the eyes of the customer.

4. Be a leader who trusts

It takes a special type of leadership to make these transformations happen. While Anna was at Blackberry, Jim Balsillie became a major mentor for her. He would set teams off in radically different directions, knowing that one would return with the right idea for what to do next. It wasn’t chaos, it was the strategy.

For a scrappy company just starting out, they couldn’t afford to outsource the thinking. This taught Anna that great transformational leadership is all about trusting that your teams are smart enough to solve problems.

And as a female leader, Anna admits she has been underestimated for most of her life. But ultimately, that underestimation has proven to be powerful because they don’t see her coming.

“I don’t really care who you think I am. I’m here to make a difference and try to change things. I’ve always opted for humor and stacking my deck of cards and playing them when I can.”

5. Say yes to things

So, how does Anna keep her eyes on the prize when faced with a tough transformational challenge? “Always stay focused on the outcome.”

Often — and especially with large corporations — teams can get lost in the planning and procedures and KPIs. There is a cost to time spent over-preparing and sometimes the best option is to jump into the deep end.

Our last question for Anna was one of our favorites: what does she want to be when she grows up?

“I’m getting older, but I’m not growing up. When people ask about my career, I laugh and go, ‘What career? I just said yes to things.’ Where is ‘yes’ going to lead to? I don’t know. But if you surround yourself with smart people that want to get stuff done in the world, then it’s not going to be boring.”

Listen to the full podcast episode featuring Anna Foat here.