Digital 2.0 – The Modern Digital Executive

People, Stories, and Integrity: Why They Matter More Than Technology

Author: Geremy Reiner , Associate Principal, Prime TSR

Whether we’re comfortable with it or not, change inundates our lives—especially in the world of tech.

Considering that, you’d think we’d be more agreeable to change. Or perhaps we’d be a little bolder in taking calculated risks.

These are only two topics I tackled with Miloš Topić, a digital expert, consultant, and currently vice president and chief digital officer at Grand Valley State University.

During our conversation, we covered the gamut.

Everything from crypto and Elon Musk to the dangers of treating technology as a silver bullet and the importance of risk-taking.

I especially enjoyed his wise words on integrity—and the story about the time he sipped $12K cognac on the 50th floor of a Manhattan high-rise.

Here’s what he had to say.

Meet Miloš Topić

Miloš is immersed in technology—and has been for nearly two decades.

He’s served Montclair State University as director of technology services, Saint Peter’s University as vice president and chief information officer, and now Grand Valley State as the institution’s vice president and chief digital officer.

He also holds a Ph.D. in Business Administration from Stevens Institute of Technology, an MBA from Montclair State University, an MS from Stevens Institute of Technology, and a slew of other degrees and certificates.

On top of that, he’s consulted for numerous start-ups, Fortune companies, and thousands of others.

In short, Miloš knows tech—but as you’ll find out, he also knows a hell of a lot about life, purpose, integrity, and people.

Biggest Lessons Learned About Transforming Companies Digitally: Technology—It’s Not a Silver Bullet

“Digital transformation” is a catchy phrase. But it’s also a phantom—and everyone’s chasing it.

To illustrate the point, travel back to 2017. At the time, General Electric was making headlines for its preemptive decision to transition to digital ahead of its competition.

They made headlines. The tech industry applauded their ingenuity.

A year later, the company was up for sale. Why? They couldn’t weather the revolving door of leadership changes, dividend cuts, credit downgrades, and a killer stock crash.

Technology didn’t save General Electric, and it won’t save anyone—unless it’s backed by vision, purpose, and people.

Miloš puts it brilliantly: “Digital is actually analog.”

Emerging technology comes along every day.

But for Miloš, tools and technology don’t matter—at least not on their own. And neither do policies, procedures, and guidelines.

“If you can’t influence the culture or help people reimagine themselves, you can’t make the magic happen. It’s still about people.” 

It goes back to the old adage: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, bring others along.

It doesn’t matter how good you are, Miloš says. “If you’re really looking to transform your business, you can’t do it alone.”

Innovation, Transformation, Modernization: Just Because They Need It Doesn’t Mean They Want It

Organizations want to thrive. And to thrive, they must innovate, transform, and modernize.

The trouble is that change hurts. So how do you sell something that organizations need but don’t always want?

Miloš suggests it’s as simple (and hard) as finding what makes people tick.

To start, spend as much time with people as you can. That means those above, below, and across from you. Figure out their biases and routines. Learn about their interests, talents, and market demand; then find where the three intersect.

Now focus clients on taking “smaller, incremental steps—the adjustable, bite-sized ones,” says Miloš.

Small, exploratory changes are safer, less daunting, and help reframe the way clients envision the transformation process.

“Very few things in life are terminal,” says Miloš, “and very few people get that.”

Show clients that change can be gradual and experimental. Remind them that failure is not fatal. On the contrary, it’s a learning tool that shows us where we need to adjust.

If clients still resist change, well, Miloš has a strategy for that. “Show them examples of companies that refuse to change and are no longer in business.”

Storytelling: It Will Determine Who’s Around in 10 Years

Every year, we see more than 5 trillion ads. And every day, the average consumer attempts to process more than 100,000 words.

We’re inundated. So when an ad comes up, we fast forward, hit mute, or pick up our device and go to the bathroom or kitchen.

We’ve stopped paying attention—partially because we’re overloaded and partly because people haven’t mastered the art of storytelling.

The art of storytelling has implications that extend beyond marketing—and Miloš argues that it would behoove the tech industry to master its narrative.

“If you want to be around in 10 years, you better know how to tell a story,” he says.
“And we’re not talking used car-salesman stuff, either.”

To succeed, you have to move people out of their comfortable seats. You must know how to encourage risk-taking. Get people closer to the edge. And do it with a story.

Or there’s the inverse: Clients want what is best for them but not necessarily in the company’s best interest.

During our conversation, Miloš dug into his past and pulled out an amusing, and somewhat disturbing, story to illustrate such a case.

“Almost 10 years ago, I was part of a five-person team,” he said, “and we were consulting for a big company that I can’t name.”

Miloš and his team worked with the company for months, and after a week-long series of meetings, the team presented their report.

“It’s about six o’clock on a Friday evening now,” Miloš recounts, “and I’m on the 50th floor of the building with the CEO, who opens the bar and pours me a glass out of a $12K bottle of Louis the XIV.”

Then the CEO says, “I see we need to make a change. But I’m not going to do anything about it.”

Why? The answer is two-fold.

First, the CEO was a year away from retirement. Second, he needed a new boat. 

That’s not all. See, the CEO had a strategy for raising the company stock price—and if he hit his numbers, he’d cash in on a $14M bonus.

Here’s the lesson:

You can tell a great story. You can present the results and use logic and common reason to convince people to change. But no matter what you do, you’re going to have to battle emotions—and boats.

Learn to accept it.

It’s More Than a Last Name: On Integrity

After only a 30-minute discussion, the reasons for Miloš’s success are clear. He’s experienced, educated, and relentlessly driven—and if you doubt that, consider that the man sleeps an average of four hours a night. Six hours when he’s lucky.

As you’ve probably noticed, he’s also articulate and, well, tells a damn good story. But he also champions integrity and uses it to guide his career.

We all have a duty to protect ourselves. But there’s a difference between self-preservation and self-interest. During our conversation, Miloš said something that stuck with me.

“My grandparents fought in World War II. My dad’s dad was shot six times. The integrity of my last name matters to me,” he says.

Miloš isn’t going to sell his soul—or his last name—for a quarterly earnings call. Nor will he join a leadership team that shuts down a company after a hundred years because the CEO wants to buy a new boat.

“I don’t get much sleep, but those four to six hours I do get need to be restful.
They won’t be if I go to bed knowing I didn’t act with integrity.”

Wise words from a wise man.

Digital 2.0 Hot Seat: Real, Hype, Or WTF

I capped off our conversation with a series of rapid-fire questions about emerging technology like AI and the Metaverse, key players like Elon Musk, and the future of remote and hybrid work.

Are they real, hype—or do they just make you scratch your head and say, “WTF?”

Here’s what Miloš had to say.

Artificial Intelligence:
A little bit of hype, but it’s coming.

The Metaverse:
Look at Second Life. That was just the beginning.

Volatile and rife with unknowns.

What we do know is two-fold: 1) Crypto is not for the faint of heart. 2) World governments will try to regulate it.

Elon Musk:
Real and interesting—but not a savior. We need to have some serious conversations about the ecological impact of lithium mines.

Remote and Hybrid Work:
It’s never going away, but there’s no substitute for a handshake. As he puts it, “10 minutes in person is going to save you 37 emails and four zoom calls.”

Thank you, Miloš, for such an insightful interview.

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