Digital World, Digital Leadership

By Kenneth Lean

Among legacy leaders, the term digital transformation sends shivers up the spine. For some, they are shivers of excitement, and for others, they may be shivers of apprehension. For me, it’s both. Because with digital transformation, comes the radical need for digital leadership.

Digital commodities dominate our lives. Technology and innovations are dramatically making their presence felt in businesses as well. There hasn’t been a greater need for a radical reinvention of how leaders adopt, adapt, and appropriate what technology means to them. 

Throwback to pre-pandemic. C-suite communication relied on in-person huddles and face-to-face communication. Now formal communication has moved to digital networks almost overnight. What was once hierarchical, is levelled down to a common screen space that everyone shares. This said the role of digital leadership has magnified manifold. Since digital communication has all but replaced in-person conversations in the workplace, leaders need to develop another dimension of self-awareness. One which requires them to be digitally fluent. Both effectively and affectively.

But first, do you speak digital?

There is a new language in the era of digital transformation. Not a programming language, but a certain cultural shift caused by turnkey events. And it has inspired existential challenges in the business world today.

A report concluded that only 12 % of leaders believed that they had the right mindset to take on this change head-on. And less than half of the respondents believed that they can, in fact, compete in the digital economy. Key takeaways:

  • An obvious disconnect between digital skills that organisations need and the leaders’ digital fluency.
  • A gap between workers’ willingness to work for an organisation with a sound purpose and the actual embodiment of that purpose by employers.
  • There are phenomenal shifts in cultural aspects, social aspects, and mores of society in the aftermath of the pandemic.

From the dawn of the gig-economy, with hybrid models of working, and a new kind of workforce, digital transformation is everywhere. It has created tectonic shifts between home and work, organisational hierarchies, and the definition of individual and organisational success. Ready or not, you and your team need to go digital or go extinct.

People over profits 

Are your people working from home or living at work? 

Check your employee timesheets. They may look as boring as a balance sheet. But they can quite honestly tell you beautifully nuanced stories about their lives after the virus outbreak. Yes, the team has gone remote. But has anyone been able to call in sick? What about the second domestic shifts we’ve all been compelled to do? How employee-friendly are the company mandated hours online?

Digital transformation is not merely about cutting-edge innovation. Contrary to popular opinion, it is about the people who make technology work. Successful digital transformation, in this sense, depends on the leaders who know how to drive this change while navigating changing dynamics of the times. You take care of your people; you take care of other key success indicators.

Cutting the clutter through a context collapse

When Danah Boyd first used the term context collapse, who knew the phenomenon would grow and take on a life of its own? Digital transformation both within and without the firewall has made leaders more visible, transparent, and vulnerable. While leaders may feel exposed to the blurry lines between the personal, the professional, and the political, this isn’t all unfortunate. 

It also empowers them to become more active and responsive while being serious and effective about their communication and online lives. A flat audience demands a meaningful purpose and alignment both inside and outside the organisation. It calls for standard procedures of communication and guardrails for every process while being transparent and agile.

How can you tell if you’re doing it right?

While performance indicators are important, we might be doing that inadequately. Morale was traditionally an HR function, but today, every leader must be able to gauge employee engagement. 

Affective indicators are an undergirding of how your people feel about your articulated purpose. There’s still contention on how this new reality needs to be optimised. It’s about intellectual property, stress levels, wellness scores, grit index, upskilling, mutual mentorship, communication, aknowledgment, check-ins, and other things around morale. Affective KPIs may be the key to effective KPIs. 

Ed Bastion, CEO at Delta, puts it this way:

…with so much uncertainty, with so much conflicting information out there, people need to look me in the eyes and understand, is this a person I can trust to lead us through this crisis?”

Is creativity still at the heart of your business?

Creativity may have once reigned entrepreneurship and business. And it may have fallen off its throne with all the uncertainty and management bureaucracy. But at both local and global scale, no innovation is possible without creativity. And with context collapse and digital transformation, ideas come less and less from leaders and more and more from the people we do not expect. This promise is delivered through a fact-based benchmark of a career which together with an evaluation of track record and personal capabilities, gives an underpinning of a prediction of an individual’s ability to generate the expected results in a specific context short-term and long-term.

While it is hard to quantify creativity and mandate it, you can fan the flames with a few simple systems in place. You may facilitate reverse mentorships programs and identity integration. Studies already show how the fusion of perspectives and diverse identities drives creativity. Imagine people with hybrid social identities, women in tech, Gen Z, and Gen A with digital skills that are second nature to them all coming together to bounce off ideas. Splendid.

Who is your ideal Digital Leader?

Understanding the ideal Digital Leader is a challenge that most organisations are facing, reason being that there are no past reference points and because the future arrived earlier than expected. A clear definition of scenario-based profiling by Experience, Skill, Knowledge, Behaviours, Attitude and Communication become an essential process for every organisation. An organisation’s ability to visualise the future and predicting market shapes are important to define the right leader for the times ahead. Great organisations will invest time, efforts and money to ensure they define their needs well; what you seek is what you will find.

How can we make sure we have the most effective leaders in place – to deliver the best possible results?

The current times needs interventions of experts, so a scientific and predictive approach is the only way forward. The predictability can be delivered only through a fact-based benchmarking of a career track record and personal capabilities. This gives an underpinning of a prediction of an individual’s ability to generate the expected results in a specific context short-term and long-term. Beyond understanding the person, his/her behaviours and potential, organisations need to ensure that the person is guided well into the new scenario/role/responsibility for the sake of success.

Summing up

The point is, we can’t expect to change our organisations if we aren’t ourselves ready to change. Returning to the office and digital transformation is not as simple as shooting out an email CCing all. It’s about communicating the purpose, embodying it, setting meaningful expectations, understanding your people, being understood, diversity, inclusion, and changing the self before one goes about trying to change another. There’s going to be a particular set of skills that you need to acquire first to evolve.

Some questions to ask yourself as a leader.

  • How fluent are you digitally?
  • Are your peers, who form a crucial mass of leadership, also digitally fluent?
  • How flexible are managers to keep upskilling themselves digitally?
  • Do you lead by example and does your team think you lead by example?
  • Do you have reverse mentorship programs in your organisation?
  • How to find/select the Digital Leader?