What makes a strong leader in today’s digital business world? Successful business leadership used to be all about high performance in strategy and execution. Then business leadership became about building high performing teams, developing emotional intelligence in yourself and others, and growing business communities through trust, effective conflict management and innovation.
All of the above, and other attributes and skills, still hold strong. But now, added to those skills sets are expectations of high level skills in another area: digital leadership.
Until a few years ago, you might have been forgiven for dismissing that as ‘something for the IT department’. But in today’s business context, digital leadership is not just related to technology. We’re talking about the whole business ecosystem, and how technology creates and drives value across the whole range of business functions.
So successful digital leaders need to fully understand the business in the digital age, how digital technology creates opportunity by acting as a disruptor, and the impact that this must have on organisational culture.
As organisations transform to become increasingly dependent on digital technologies, skilled digital leaders will be in high demand – and effective leadership will be essential to future sustainability and success. I met Nick Skytland from NASA recently and he agreed to my sharing with you some of NASA’s insights from recent research on the future of work, which you can read here.
What are the attributes and skills you need, and the steps you may need to take to stay ahead of the curve?
- Strong business skills
The fundamentals of business have not changed in the digital age, and you’ll still need a good grounding and experience in all of them: profit and loss, cost control, cash flow, customer service and retention, people and stakeholder management, commercial management.
But whilst, in the past, business leaders may have been able to rely on their IT or marketing heads for this, in order to Think Digital First you’ll also need to become technologically savvy enough to identify the opportunities and drive through digital transformation programmes.
- Technological and digital awareness (and knowing the difference)
Boards and senior executives need to become more engaged with technology. As a leader of a digital first business you’ll have to be comfortable not just talking about, but also using, technology; and be informed enough to promote its use and underline its importance.
If you’re currently a business leader who is a self-confessed technophobe, you need to address that, starting right now. A digital business requires every member of its senior team to be able to make meaningful contributions to discussions about technology and articulate its value. This doesn’t mean you need to have a deep understanding of how digital technologies work, but you need to understand what they are capable of, and how they could be applied in your organisation.
But Thinking Digital First is about a lot more than embracing technology, so being comfortable talking about technology matters is just a first step to becoming a successful digital leader.
Thinking Digital First is about transformation – creating new business models, products and services, generating new revenue streams, and creating a unique customer experience. Leaders who still believe that digital is just an IT project, or is just about improving their website or increasing their social media activity are not digitally aware.
Providing the leadership required for a successful digital transformation will require you to understand how digital drives the entire business. You can read more about a future leader’s role in digital transformation here.
As a future digital business leader, you’ll need to understand how key digital technologies work together to completely transform an organisation’s culture and the way it operates.
An aspiring future digital leader who shows little interest in digital products and services will struggle to maintain their credibility within their organisation, especially as Generation Z begins to join the workforce.
Your journey towards digital leadership may start with exploring digital offerings and experiences on a personal basis, but ultimately you will need to understand how digital products and services will generate value for the business – as well as the investment and resources needed to create and manage them.
- Design thinking and agile methodology
Agile methodology and design need to be learned and understood at all levels in the organisation – beginning with high level leaders but spreading throughout the business and independent of function and role.
Good design encourages experimentation at a level which would otherwise be impractical. It allows digital leaders to draw on a whole team’s imagination, intuition and customer knowledge, and fosters a true culture of innovation. This shortened cycle increases the opportunity for innovation to add business value. Design thinking is a problem-solving approach which speeds up learning, and shortens the time needed to get an idea through development and into the market.
Digital business relies on collaboration – across the different areas of the business, and, potentially, with third parties. Digital flows through an organisation, breaking down the traditional boundaries between business functions to create a seamless customer experience. Achieving this relies on leaders to be able to look at the business from a customer perspective, and spot opportunities to improve their experience and anticipate their needs. You’ll need to be capable of leading without boundaries, and enabling others to do likewise, to allow your teams to make the best use of new digital tools to provide innovative solutions.
Your approach to collaboration will also need to embrace virtual teams – both within and outside your organisation, in order to get the most value from the right people, and gain true advantage from the opportunities provided by digital technologies.
- Actively seeking new ideas
Truly collaborative working practices come from a culture in which new ideas and innovative practices are actively encouraged, across the business. This means that the responsibility for new ideas belongs to everyone – staff in every area, partners, suppliers and customers.
As a successful digital leader, you will need to create the right environment and processes for ideas to be shared, debated and acted upon.
You’ll also need to take into account your workforce’s preferred ways of working. As generation Z enters the workplace, understanding how they (and remember that they are true digital natives) will expect their working lives to be. I’ve explored this in more detail in my blog on the subject of embracing Gen Z in the workplace.
- Risk taking
You will need to be the kind of leader who is willing to take risks, and to support and encourage your workforce in doing so.
Digital markets are more dynamic than traditional markets, and disruptors can enter the market quickly. So to stay ahead of the competition, you will need to be able to respond quickly to changes, and ready to introduce new features, products and services.
This will require you to be a rapid decision-maker, sometimes on what may seem to be minimal information – encouraging your teams to try new things, test their ideas and learn fast.
I’m not necessarily talking about taking big risks; the most successful digital businesses regularly launch small initiatives to test new ideas, products and services. But you’ll be testing in the real world, with your customers, instead of carrying out lengthy ‘offline’ research.
- Being prepared to fail
Inevitably, while some ideas will work, others won’t, and the business will need to be able to recognise this and move on, quickly. Your organisational culture needs to accept failure as part of innovation – as long as it is small, and fast. As a digital leader, you will need to be able to set realistic boundaries within which innovative ideas can be tested and assessed without the threat of repercussions if they prove unsuccessful.
If any of this sounds like a challenge to you, you have work to do in order to get ready for successful future digital leadership. The good news is that all of these capabilities can be learned or acquired, and if you already have a good grounding in more ‘traditional’ business leadership skills, that certainly won’t go to waste.
If you’re willing to learn all the time, and have the capability to learn, adapt and implement in every area required as you grow, it will give you a critical competitive advantage in the marketplace, and enable you to become a successful digital leader of the future.