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Q&A with Atif Rafiq, Volvo Cars Chief Digital Officer

Fishbowl’s Consulting community began 2019 on a high note, as we hosted our first Q&A featuring an industry C-suite leader, Atif Rafiq, the current Chief Digital Officer of Volvo Cars.

At Volvo Cars, Atif oversees the company’s digital transformation across the consumer experience and enterprise capabilities. Prior to joining the luxury car company, he was the Chief Digital Officer at McDonald’s, the world’s largest retailer, where he built the company’s digital strategy from the ground up.

Atif took the time to answer some of our community’s questions regarding the future of digital transformation, how to seek new job opportunities, and what the future holds for consulting firms, among other topics. 

Here are some of the highlights from his session:

Q: “As more companies seek to embed digital innovation across the enterprise, how do you see the role of consultants changing?” 

Atif: “In the space of digitization, the name of the game is building internal capability. So it can be frustrating to hear a pitch to outsource work and thinking to another firm when a ton of investment and energy is being applied to building it inside.

If a company is aggressive with internal product ownership, for example, and the consulting firm comes back with an old school outsourcing approach — that simply won’t be a fit.

My advice to consulting firms is to think of embedding their talent into teams. A better ambition is supporting a continuous process that’s owned inside the company with staff augmentation and bar-raising by the partnering firm. There should be significant opportunity in that model because talent is harder to find and companies need speed.”

Q: “What advice would you give to someone who’s started their working career in consulting?” 

Atif: “First, consulting is a great place to start! Second, there is for some people no greater feeling of accomplishment than building something that didn’t exist before and owning it (fully accountable for the consequences). The learning in such a situation is unrivaled and teaches things that are very unique and highly in demand like wrestling with ambiguity, being decisive, and eating the consequences.

Earlier in one’s career, I think such experiences should be the main aim, as they are the fastest way to accelerate knowledge and judgment. You will learn how to learn, how to learn by doing, how to make learning and iteration work in your favor in order to figure out new spaces. Every company needs that because all growth markets are characterized by ambiguous, uncertain problems.”

Q: “You’ve worked at several top companies. What’s your motivation for seeking new opportunities? Lastly, what’s the end goal for you?”

Atif: “I’ve been the lucky recipient of a market that is scarce on digital native talent in senior roles, and am willing to go after it. In other words, I have not actively looked for jobs but instead, have been sort of plucked out by organizations hungry for a new kind of leadership.

Being open to and scaling new experiences is hard but can in and of itself be a developed skill. Coming back to your question – differentiated/scarce skills are more rewarded by the external labor markets than internal ones. That could explain why I have found more growth externally and not been shy to take risks by entering new companies. I don’t know where this will “end up”.

Personally, I am anti-goals. Ambition is a totally separate matter. Ambition fuels hard work, creativity, and learning. Goals can fuel disappointment and lack of gratitude for whatever one has. I have no specific career aspirations other than to kill it at whatever I do now and be open to more.”

Q: “What is your perspective on the longer-term value of an MBA? Has it played an important role in your journey?”

Atif: “My view on this one has evolved throughout the years. Closer to graduating, I did not see the value because learning can take place with the right experience, and applications of education are not direct for many cases.

My view now is different. It’s a great way to signal and position the business aspect of your profile and aptitude. Companies need profiles that cross over like a “business technologist”, so the MBA can go a long way to fulfill one component of that particular example. That example, also becomes a rarer find, which can add to career acceleration.”

Q: “If I ultimately want to be a C-suite leader in the industry, what stage in my career would you recommend on making the jump from consulting? Stick it out till Partner?”

Atif: “Both paths can get you there, but they are different. Observing partners who come into operating roles at the C-level, it takes a couple years to adapt to the differences between a consulting practice and a more traditional type of company. Partners tend to have great strategic thinking and influential skills, which are important to be at the top. They tend to need more development when it comes to becoming more hands-on people and tactical matters that compromise a lot of the work in a traditional corporation.

A solution to that can be surrounding oneself with the right people to fill those gaps. It’s a viable and proven path which happens all the time. When you transition early or mid-career to an operating role from consulting, you’ll naturally have a more balanced context by the time [x] years go by.

The repository to lean on for direction and decision making is going to be more diverse in my view. While this route sounds preferable, coming into the right spot in a traditional company is important.

Look for a high-performance environment where others will make you better and a real growth agenda, otherwise, it could be stale and not so motivating. It’s important to seek out a “growth mindset” vs. “fixed mindset”.”

Q: “What do you see as the most important digital trends for large corporations (Fortune 1000) heading into 2019?” 

Atif: “I would propose business agility, which is making decisions with speed and effectiveness. Most companies are optimized for execution of what they’ve done in the past, but the new challenges are about learning and acting more quickly in new growth areas. Without looking at new growth opportunities, many large traditional companies are just managing their financial flows and won’t grow enough to stay relevant in the long term.” 

 

We want to thank Atif for taking the time to share his expertise with Fishbowl’s Consulting community. To see other insights he shared, be sure to check out the rest of his Q&A here.

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