Do we need new leaders in a digital environment? This was a question posed to me last year as I worked on a small team focused on digital transformation. Once I had this question, I couldn’t let it go, and I spent a lot of time thinking about the question and looking at research on transformation, digital environments and leadership. In analyzing this information, I’ve concluded that we shouldn’t “toss out” our current leaders, but, rather, encourage leaders to understand this new digital environment and consciously apply existing leadership skills in new ways.
When you look at leadership skills, every leader needs core leadership skills regardless of business environment. For example, a leader needs to communicate effectively, relate team and individual goals to corporate goals, effectively manage direct reports, and build relationship across other teams and departments. A leader needs all of these skills in order to be successful.
As the business environment changes, core leadership skills remain, but a leader might need to deploy those skills in a different manner. As an example, a leader first needs to learn how to communicate effectively with his or her team, often involving things like how to set team goals, how to effectively coach team members, how to hold 1:1 conversations, how to manage performance, and how to have career conversations. As a leader grows in his or her role, communication takes on different challenges – communicating with multiple teams; managing conflicting priorities, goals and personalities; and often doing these things in a virtual environment across multiple cultures.
When transforming to a digital environment, these communication skills still need to exist, but a leader faces new challenges in communicating using tools that exist in a digital world. This might be something like tweeting quick updates; using an online collaboration platform to drive a team’s work; or creating a short video to outline future goals for stakeholders external to the immediate team.
I don’t believe we need to “throw out” our existing leaders and create new leaders for the Digital Age. However, there are eight core capabilities that I think leaders need to develop to both think and act differently in the digital age – all building on existing skills, but transforming those skills for a new business environment. These eight capabilities are identified in the picture below:
In addition to strong core leadership skills, leaders for the future must build the following abilities:
Mental agility is the ability to think critically and make new connections when solving problems. Mental agility is important to a leader in the Digital Age because those leaders are continually dealing with ongoing complexity and the need to make decisions without complete information. By having mental models that can help “connect the dots” leaders can be more effective in making decisions and adjusting course quickly in light of the larger picture.
Put It Into Practice: If you have a strong opinion on a topic, write out the argument that the “other side” might have. Does this give you any additional insights?
I have to admit that the term “rapid adaptivity” is not my own, but I really like the imagery of this term (and apologies to the creator as I cannot remember where I first read it). Rapid adaptivity is the ability for a leader to be flexible and change with changing business needs. Great leaders are willing to experiment and try new things in order to stay relevant in a rapidly changing business environment. By constantly looking for connections and continually scanning the business environment, a leader can build the capability to rapidly adapt no matter the challenge.
Put It Into Practice: When faced with what you consider a problem, take 5 minutes to identify 2-3 opportunities that might exist as a result of the problem. Write these down and consider if there’s something you want to (or should) explore.
Learning agility is simply the ability to apply past lessons to new and future situations. Great leaders know that rapid change requires rapid learning – and this learning can come from a variety of sources and experiences. Most importantly, great leaders believe that people can improve, and they model a learning environment in which all of their people can be challenged and grow.
Put It Into Practice: Add a weekly appointment to your calendar for learning. In that appointment, identify what you want to learn and then keep that appointment with your brain.
A post on leadership in the Digital Age wouldn’t be complete without addressing digital literacy. It’s not enough for leaders to know about technology – they have to embrace technology and the opportunities it offers. Great leaders can use technology to create relationships, build teams, and re-shape their business. Digital literacy encapsulates this concept of going “all-in” with the possibilities that technology offers.
Put It Into Practice: Check out the Europass Digital Competences grid and evaluate your own digital competence. If there’s something that you want to improve, document it and make a plan for improving.
Customer Focus is the ability to understand customer needs and react appropriately to those things that influence the customer – including how the customer uses technology. Great leaders in the digital environment will take care to understand their customers’ perspectives; look at market changes from that perspective, and make decisions and adjust strategy with the well-being of the customer in mind. Further, leaders will instill this thinking across all of their teams.
Put It Into Practice: Make a habit of asking “Does this matter to our customers?” If it doesn’t, modify your plans. Take it a step further and actually ask a couple of customers if your decision matters to them.
If a leader is data driven, they have the ability to use data to improve decision making and business performance. This isn’t to say that data will be the only thing they look at or that they will always have every piece of data needed to make a decision. Rather, great leaders in a digital environment will understand what kind of data is relevant, will seek out data when appropriate, and will be effective in applying that data to their decision making.
Put It Into Practice: If you are presenting data in support of an idea, ask someone to play “devil’s advocate” and use that same data to argue against you.
Leaders in the Digital Age need to achieve business results in a virtual, cross-cultural environment. Working remotely will be the norm, requiring a level of trust when managing people and working with customers across the globe. The ability to work with multiple cultures and respect the difference of those cultures is imperative to the success of a Digital Age leader.
Put It Into Practice: If you are presenting to people in another country, ask someone to be your “cultural coach” to review your presentation for any cultural hiccups.
A collaborative leader has the ability to lead inclusively, engaging others with transparency, honesty and authenticity. The “command & control” leader of yesterday is gone. Great leaders in the Digital Age know that they need to go beyond inclusive – they have to make a conscious effort to not exclude, effectively building trust and using openness and collaboration to achieve goals.
Put It Into Practice: For you or your team members – interview someone outside of your immediate team that you interact with. Find out what they do and how your team’s work impacts their team’s work. Share this feedback in a team meeting and look for ways that working relationship can be improved.
Each of these capabilities could probably be its own post. My intent, however, is to provide you a flavor for each capability and what it might mean. To succeed in the future, leaders – actually, all people – need the capacity to unlearn, relearn and continually adapt to ever-evolving tools and technologies in order to remain relevant. Warren Bennis said “Success in management requires learning as fast as the world is changing.” I’ll suggest that success for anyone requires learning as fast as the world is changing.