Nicole Mayerhauser Of Emerald One On How To Use Digital Transformation To Take Your Company To The Next Level

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Ask new questions. In particular, ask, “What if?” The cost of digital technologies, software as a service, platforms, and open-source tech make experimenting more feasible than ever. Companies don’t have to invest in massive technology infrastructure projects to prototype an idea and test a “what if” hypothesis. That means more experimenting, more time testing answers to bold questions, and proving ideas that could be game changers for a company.

Digital transformation has become a crucial component for businesses striving to stay competitive and relevant in today’s rapidly evolving landscape. As technology continues to shape industries and redefine business models, companies must adapt and leverage digital tools and strategies to unlock new opportunities for growth and innovation. In this interview series, we aim to explore various aspects of digital transformation, including best practices, challenges, success stories, and expert insights. We are talking to thought leaders, industry experts, entrepreneurs, technology innovators, and executives who have firsthand experience in driving digital transformation initiatives within their organizations. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Nicole Mayerhauser.

Nicole Marie Mayerhauser, MBA, is the Chief Operating Officer for Emerald One LLC. Nicole has 20 years of experience managing, directing, and leading technical professionals in producing highly public-facing information products and services within time-sensitive, deadline-driven environments. She is a proven senior executive and strategic operations professional who has deep experience transforming management processes, operations, and organizational structures for maximum efficiency in the public and private sector.

Nicole has worked with senior officials from across federal, state, and international governments, academia, and commercial industry on a broad set of topics from developing and promoting economic research and data products to developing and executing Information Technology strategies and operational efficiencies. She has participated on expert panels, conducting radio and television interviews, and provided briefings to national and international audiences. She has built trusted relationships across all levels of organizations to drive transformational change.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’ll start with a quick shoutout to my origins in Maine, born and raised! After high school, I pursued economics and international relations degrees in Washington, DC, envisioning a career as an international economic policy expert. However, my path led me to a role as an economist at the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), helping to estimate nation’s GDP statistics, an experience that ignited my passion for national economic accounting. Altogether, I spent about 17 years with BEA where I delved into the intricacies of measuring and interpreting macroeconomic data — an area I find both intriguing and rewarding.

In one of my proudest achievements, I collaborated with the US Department of the Interior to develop the first official GDP statistics for the US territories of Guam, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. I was appointed to the Federal Senior Executive Service (SES) in 2011 and became BEA’s National Income and Wealth Division Chief, where I oversaw the production and dissemination of US GDP and national economic accounts. I was now leading the organization I had joined as a new college graduate 14 years earlier. During that time, I earned my MBA from The College of William and Mary.

In 2016, an unexpected opportunity arose to join the executive leadership team at US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Information and Technology (OIT) to help establish and lead their new Enterprise Program Management Office. I was already passionate about VA’s mission to support Veterans and their families, and it felt like a meaningful opportunity.

The move to VA marked a significant shift in my career. I left a role where I was established in my field, with deep roots and technical expertise, and shifted to leading one of the largest IT portfolios in federal government with a $1 billion software budget, over 300 projects, 3000 employees without a deep technology background and zero roots within the organization. That leap into the unknown opened many new doors and helped me see a real need for a different type of consultant — one who truly understands the executive mindset and the practical realities of leading an organization through change. While at VA, I met the two best future business partners someone could have. And we have been able to combine our very different backgrounds, skills, and experiences to establish our company, Emerald One, and build an outstanding team of practically minded, executive management consultants focused on helping our clients reach their best selves and closing the gap between strategy and execution.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

There is one story I think about often. I am not proud of it, but it certainly taught me a lesson that has stuck with me. When I first started at BEA, I had to reprogram the calculations of US private fixed investment from the programming language Fortran into a proprietary economics program. There were several instances where we had to make annualized growth rate calculations. At 21 years old in DC, I enjoyed a good happy hour. So, one day I was at work, not feeling my best after an evening out, and was focused all day on coding these new programs.

The next day I came in early, feeling 100% and ready to run tests — but none of the estimates looked right. Nothing matched our published data. I soon realized I had coded all the growth rate calculations backwards. I paused, embarrassed, and vowed never to show up to work at less than my best from that moment on.

It also taught me to segment my work in ways that allowed me to regularly test assumptions and assess progress against my objectives so one mishap didn’t turn into multiple.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

It is hard to pick only one person. I believe in learning from everyone I observe and interact with. There are, however, certain individuals who have been especially influential in helping me carve new paths in ways I couldn’t have imagined. First among them is my mentor, friend, and business partner LaVerne Council.

I Interviewed with LaVerne in 2016 when she was VA Chief Information Officer (CIO), and I had no idea how this would change the trajectory of my career. It is rare for a single 90-minute conversation to inspire you to leap into an entirely new career path. We met, we clicked, and within 24 hours I had given my notice to my BEA family. I simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to work with and learn from such an exceptional leader and extraordinary person.

Since then, LaVerne has been a significant influence in shaping my career and personal journey. She has helped me develop the empathy to lead in varying situations and environments, given me courage to take risks, and challenged me to learn in ways that I am not sure I would have been open to otherwise.

The inclination is often to surround oneself with what is comfortable. I don’t believe you can grow that way. If you want to grow, surround yourself with people who bring new perspectives, challenge your worldview, open your aperture, and help you embrace the uncomfortable. This is what LaVerne has done for me.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

1984 by George Orwell has shaped how I think about information, communication, transparency, and the consequences of breakdowns on those points. Perhaps that sounds a little dark, but I don’t mean it that way.

When I read the novel in high school, I certainly didn’t have the same appreciation for it as I do know, particularly the lesson it taught me about the art of communication and its ability to amplify or diminish the impact of information — or even create alternative truths, depending on how it is used.

I see less Orwellian examples of the importance of communication everywhere. A leader may have the perfect strategy to expand customer reach, but if they are unable to articulate that vision and ensure their teams are aligned, people will not act, and execution fails. How many times do we see this with new technologies? It is said that between 60 to 80% of large tech implementations fail, not because the tech was bad, but because leaders failed to communicate the vision, purpose, or call to action. Strong communication must be at the heart of your strategy to motivate the effort required to adapt.

I used to believe that data spoke for itself. But the reality is data needs a voice. It needs to be interpreted; it needs a story. Without effective communication and an ability to move people to act on that information, the data are meaningless. You see that in spades in 1984, and it has become a compass for how I approach my work.

Are you working on any new, exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

This might sound cliché, but I am working on building our company. How our team shows up, the frameworks and methodologies we use, and company culture we want to nurture are all critical to ensure we deliver the best for our clients and that they know they have a trusted partner in us.

In this way, we are practicing what we preach to the organizations we work with — resilience for sustainable tech transformation, change management and a thriving company start with the team’s foundation of leadership, values, and culture.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion about Digital Transformation. Digital transformation can mean many things to many people, from your perspective, how do you define digital transformation in your industry?

In today’s dynamic digital landscape, the term “Digital Transformation” has lost some of its relevance, given the constant move toward a digital world. For many, word “transformation” implies that a big bang overhaul is required to move an organization from analog to digital. I would suggest the idea of digital resiliency is more relevant for today — a capacity to adapt and thrive amid constant technological change.

This shift underscores the importance of leading intentionally to instill a mindset that fosters a comfort level with constant change across your organization. As teams navigate the complexities of the digital age where change has become a constant, they must confront technological disruptions with agility and creativity while driving innovation and growth to sustain them into the future.

Which companies can most benefit from a Digital Transformation?

Any company can benefit from digital transformation, whether they are taking embarking on their own digital initiative or taking advantage of the outside digital innovations and breakthroughs that have altered the world we all live in. Take ChatGPT as an example: Employees across government and commercial industry are starting to experiment with its capabilities, and companies can take advantage of this — jumpstart an idea, explore a concept.

As digital technologies become more ubiquitous, the companies that will benefit most are the ones that have a problem-solving mindset; a customer-centric focus; a clear point of view on data management and data stewardship; and a culture that fosters innovation, encourages continuous learning, and adapts to change. This starts with leadership who actively supports and champions digital initiatives.

To assess a company’s readiness for a digital transformation, at Emerald One, we look for clarity of strategic vision, communication of business goals, and expectations for the initiative. We also assess leadership’s capacity for proactive decision-making for technology adoption and their ability to motivate teams through the digital transformation journey. We help leaders understanding the culture they have so they know what steps are required to maximize the benefits of digital transformation. When leaders set clear goals and align their culture and resources with those goals, companies can address organizational needs, level up their operations, and stay competitive in today’s dynamic business landscape.

Has integrating Digital Transformation been a challenging process for some companies? What are the challenges? How do you help resolve them?

It is a challenging process for many companies, especially for those who have not taken the time to set the right foundation. Some common challenges include leadership’s focus and commitment to achieving their desired objectives, employees’ resistance to change, a lack of sound system and data architecture or hygiene, siloed working units, and difficulty aligning digital initiatives with overall business strategies. Additionally, many overlook the cultural shift required to ensure effective communication with your employees, customers, and business partners throughout the process.

To resolve these challenges, we help our clients focus on five foundational elements that we call the Elements of Brilliance:

The first is Leadership: We work with our client leaders to ensure they understand their roles and responsibilities. This often includes leadership coaching to help them align their objectives with their team’s performance.

The second is Culture awareness: We assess the organization’s current culture and help them understand what their behaviors and norms are today — as well as how those norms may support or hinder them in achieving their desired outcomes. We then develop strategies and execution plans that take these realities into consideration.

Trust is next: We help the organization understand their strong points of trust and where weaknesses may derail them if not addressed. For example, if a company’s HR data is notoriously incorrect and this data is a critical input to achieve a digital transformation effort, employees will have low trust in the effort and begin questioning the accuracy and integrity of the results. Similarly, low trust among work units will stifle effective implementation of any technologies designed to improve collaboration or workflow across organization units.

The fourth element is Resource Value Maximization: We work with leaders to understanding what is currently available to them, such as existing technologies, people, structures, budgets, or other assets that can support successful digital implementations. We challenge leaders to consider how to use what they have differently and not overlook the potential value of existing resources by assuming they must always invest in the new.

Finally, we help leaders use Time Compression: Time is the most valuable, finite asset we have. Once it is gone, it can never be replaced. We help leaders and their teams to consider ways to compress the time needed to achieve milestones and consider what is feasible within a set timeframe. Time compression helps combat the challenge of people waiting the leader out and helps ensure you can take advantage of momentum toward change before it fades.

Based on your experience and success, what are “Five Ways a Company Can Use Digital Transformation To Take It To The Next Level”?

Embarking on digital transformation creates the conditions and the space for a company to change how it operates and competes.

1 . Think digitally. When companies start planning through the lens of interconnectivity, the opportunities are endless. A digital mindset helps to break down barriers that may have held employees back in the past. When you can see how to link data across business functions to highlight customer insights, new opportunities for connection and impact emerge.

2 . Ask new questions. In particular, ask, “What if?” The cost of digital technologies, software as a service, platforms, and open-source tech make experimenting more feasible than ever. Companies don’t have to invest in massive technology infrastructure projects to prototype an idea and test a “what if” hypothesis. That means more experimenting, more time testing answers to bold questions, and proving ideas that could be game changers for a company.

3 . Reimagine business and operating models. This does not mean replacing people with machines. Rather, I challenge leaders to reimagine how labor and capital work together. As an example, consider the power of using a digital twin to test scenarios, create learning opportunities for employees, or analyze disaster recovery plans that would be prohibitively expensive otherwise.

4 . Renew customer relationships. As the world becomes increasingly digital, customers expect seamless experiences. Most people are not naive to the fact that their data is a coveted asset. Companies that can securely and respectfully leverage data to provide better customer experiences have a great opportunity to strengthen trust and loyalty of their customers.

Underlying all of these must be a foundation of committed leadership, clear and consistently communicated objectives, and a willingness to adapt.

In your opinion, how can companies best create a “culture of innovation” in order to create new competitive advantages?

Focus on building trust between employees and leadership, between people and the technology, and between the company and their customers. When trust is high, people feel safe to experiment, customers are open to new concepts.

Have awareness and understanding of the culture you have today. Creating a culture of innovation requires an honest assessment of the culture you have, not the one you want. Know where you are starting from (your benchmark) so you can build a strategy that is feasible and attainable.

Shed the assumption that innovation means new. Consider what you could do with existing resources, your people, technology, budgets, contracts, etc. By creating conditions to reimagine how to use your existing investments, you foster a mindset of continuous improvement and innovation from the first level of the organization up to the top. It requires far fewer approvals than convincing stakeholders to make a new investment.

Sustain consistent and transparent communication. This doesn’t mean holding big all-hands company meetings to unveil new innovations. It means consistently reinforcing your North Star and strategic goals, and transparently sharing progress toward those goals and the lessons learned from each effort. It is important to ensure everyone in the organization sees themselves as a contributor to the organization’s mission.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do one thing every day that scares you.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

The choices I have made so far in life required risk-taking. I didn’t know if I would fail, I didn’t know how I would succeed. I just knew I wanted to expand what I had to offer to the world, the people around me, and to myself which meant pushing past the limits of my comfort. I don’t see that changing now. I think I need to be even bolder.

I bring this mindset to my work with my team and the organizations we support. Shifting a leadership style, evolving a company culture, and thinking in new, more strategic ways about technology implementation can push a leader out of their comfort zone, but the reward is the new potential created on other side of the transformation.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.