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What’s new about Digital Leadership?

Understanding the concept of Digital Leadership is not an easy tasks. Multiple points of view, different approaches, a lot of partial answers, all contribute to a scattered scenario. If we want to really focus on digital maturity though, we need to approach this concept as the fundamental component of Culture Change.

Digital Leadership is another concept, together with of Transformation, that is really “hot” in the most recent managerial literature and debate. The debate goes between the two extremes of who tries to redefine entirely the concept of Leadership applied to digital, and those that instead minimize its impact to just a new technology variable, not altering the fundamentals of traditional Leadership models. In this post I will try to reframe the topic starting from suggesting that the perspective of what is a digital leader already creates complexity in giving an answer. I will then assess three possible models of answer in the framework of Digital Transformation.

What is a Digital Leader?

Most traditional organizations are challenged constantly in defining what is digital, and this also apply to what digital leadership is. Reality is that when we look around for definitions, we incur into difficulties because there are many fragmented definitions of this. Below a (probably not exhaustive) list of possible meanings.

  • Leadership that employs digital tools and technologies
  • Leadership that is concerned with leading digital natives
  • Leadership during process of digital transformation
  • Leadership that is concerned with digital sales channel (or omnichannel) within traditional businesses.
  • Leadership that is concerned with data and digitization of information.

Issue is that within each of the above contexts, the meaning itself of leadership might be different, and requires different tools. In the first case, for example, we might be looking at Digital Leaders as specific roles (this also would apply to case 4). Point 2 aligns a lot with the leadership of start-ups, and there’s endless literature that tries to grasp what the unicorn’s leaders do well. Point 3 is probably the one element that I’m more interested in, as it encompass the real needs of most companies.

1. Digital Leadership as a Role

Some research (most notably that of MIT and Deloitte) has focused on Digital Executives (which normally carry the title of “Chief Digital Officers” and should, according to a 2015 McKinsey article, act as transformers in chief), and has identified four profiles of success for a role that is called to achieve multiple objectives:

Through a survey of over 211 digital leaders, they analyzed a number of traits and identified 4 possible profiles of successful digital executives.

Fig. 1: Four Profiles of Successful Digital Executives

Each of these profiles has some specific characteristics, and a specific blend of traditional leadership traits and technical/digital skills. What is important in the research is that each of these profiles has different level of effectiveness depending on the situation.

Fig. 2: Effective Digital Executives in Different Work and External Contexts

The researchers have identified two axes: the level of influence of the CDO and the competitive pressure, identifying which profile suits best each situation.

By doing so they however have de-facto assessed that the CDO role itself has a somehow limited reach within the organisation in its pursuit for Digital maturity, often limiting itself to only one side of the business. The situational nature of the successful digital executive is further stressed in this research.: Designating a jack-of-all-trades as a CDO is both unrealistic and ineffective.

Plus, we need to consider that most organizations did not even design. digital executive, and often rely on more traditional CIOs to do the job. Especially if we consider that in too many organisations the term CIO has been transformed into the equivalent of “a box and wire jockey” — someone who simply acquires boxes and wires and replaces desktops and handles servers.

If our framework of reference, however, is that of a culture change for the entire organisation, relying solely on the CDO is also unrealistic, and in the long term dangerous.

2. Digital Leadership as a Skillset

There’s many articles that focus on required (new) skills/traits/attitudes. And there are many lists available: some identify Communication, Vision, Digital Literacy, Strategy, innovation, Risk Taking, Adaptability, Talent Spotting as the 8 skills more in demand. However, I feel we can’t really label these as new (probably with the exception of Digital Literacy).

Thinking in terms of solely skills, can be dangerous as it can trigger what is often indicated as competency traps.

Competency traps are the mistaken beliefs that the factors that led to past success will also be associated with future success. Digital technologies are changing the competitive landscape — providing new ways of delivering value to customers and new service opportunities — and factors associated with past successes may not be associated with future success.

MIT, Coming of age digitally

For sure there are some skills that will make it easier for individual leaders to push for Digital Transformation. We have already seen how a growth mindset is one of the key enablers in this, as it allows leaders to believe that digital skills (and ultimately change( can be developed within the organisation. Another element that we have seen is Digital Literacy, which becomes a necessary trait to exploit new technologies.

In any case Ia rogue that Digital Leaders don’t have a skill profile that should set them apart completely from other leaders in the organisation. Beside what’s needed for their specific job, most of the traits that are identified as key for a “digital leader” are the same across the board.

On this point I appreciated a lot the research that IMD has conducted on Agile Leadership: The research revealed that leadership effectiveness in disruptive environments shared many of the same characteristics as leadership in more stable environments, but with a few notable differences.

These where identified as 4 specific characteristics and three behaviors that characterize agile leaders. The 4 characteristics are:

  1. Humble: They are able to accept feedback and acknowledge that others know more than they do.
  2. Adaptable: They accept that change is constant and that changing their minds based on new information is a strength rather than a weakness.
  3. Visionary: They have a clear sense of long-term direction, even in the face of short-term uncertainly.
  4. Engaged: They have a willingness to listen, interact, and communicate with internal and external stakeholders combined with a strong sense of interest and curiosity in emerging trends.
IMD Agile Leadership Framework
Fig.3 : IMD Agile Leadership Framework

The three key behaviors are:

  1. Hyperawareness: They are constantly scanning internal and external environments for opportunities and threats.
  2. Making Informed Decisions: They make use of data and information to make evidence-based decisions.
  3. Executing at Speed: They are able to move quickly, often valuing speed over perfection.

3. Digital Leadership as a distributed culture

Thinking that a sole leader can be the artifex of digital maturity is utterly risky, if not wrong. One of the most interesting points of the yearly Digital business Report that MIT and Deloitte have been conducting, is the importance of increasing the leadership quotient in the organisation, by creating more distributed leadership.

We find that digitally maturing companies are more likely to be pushing decision-making authority down into lower levels of the organization in order to better execute in a digital environment. 

MIT, Coming of age digitally
Fig.3 : Distributed Leadership and Digital Maturity

Telling that decisions are delegated down in the organisation does not mean we see there is a true distributed leadership. There needs to be a strong linkage with culture change and control systems, to enable consistency. On this point its interesting that the survey results themselves illustrate that despite 59% of CEOs believing they are pushing decision-making down, only 33% of VP and director level respondent report that this is happening.

Even considering the complexity above, we can start building upon an inclusive definition off Digital Leadership in a distributed culture.

Digital leadership is about empowering others to lead and creating self-organized teams that optimise their day-to-day operations. Leadership is no longer hierarchical – it needs participation, involvement and contribution from everyone. 

World Economic Forum, This is what great leadership looks like in the digital age

Going into this direction, requires braveness and focus, and intentional strategy in building an environment that allows for more distributed leadership, through concrete actions:

  1. Build participation and accountability.
  2. Provide direction, clarity and purpose
  3. Empower people to experiment, innovate and executeBuild participation and accountability.
  4. Building bridges and finding solutions
  5. Be agile and take decision quickly
  6. Constantly re-skill

For sure, rethinking your organizational model might support this as well.

Starting from yourself

An interesting post from the Leading Edge Forum has been focusing on the 7 Digital Habits of Highly Effective people, which are mapped on top of the famous Habits identified by Covey. These serve as a structure to teach and learn new technical skills, but also serve as a way to support how we can build ourselves as lifelong learners.

Most of the habits relate to the individual, and how we can use these to understand what is going upon around us. However, there is one that resonates directly with the topic of today: Lead by being a Digital Example.

HABIT 6 – Lead by being a digital example – we need to be the change we want to see in our people, so we need to be clear on our own reasons or “whys” for becoming a 21st Century Human and make what we call a Digital Decision to follow through. This links to the [Stephen] Covey habit of “Begin with the end in mind.”

7 Digital habits

The concept of leading here is of course very broad. But resonates a lot. As you know I am a very curious person, and have always been open and passionate about technology. Through this I found myself many times “entitled” to lead the discussion about technology adoption, new system implementation, transformation itself, because of how I’ve been using technology. And this is what has eventually landed also my current role. If you expand this by moving beyond technology alone, and for example expand to the principles of the Agile Manifesto, you can really become quickly an example for the rest of the organisation.

The ability to join your personal acquaintance with digital tools, to the mission of your team or organization, is something that then becomes natural if the organisation has the cultural attributes to allow this. If not, probably it’s time to do something to change, as the direction is for sure the wrong one.

A Partial Conclusion

Probably this long post has raised more questions than given answers. It will also age pretty quickly. The one element that wills tick is that in a company that matures to become more digital, the quest is about getting more leadership, and pushing it to the parts of the organisation where the relationship with the customer happens.

What do you think?

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Photo by rob walsh on Unsplash

This entry was posted in: Customer Experience

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I am an experienced and innovative HR professional dedicated in improving the way organizations achieve results through their people. Over the years I have worked on many projects in different HR domains, gaining a deep understanding of all key HR processes, from Talent Management to Recruiting, from Organizational Design to Leadership Development, from HR Transformation to HR & Payroll Systems implementation at International level. Working with Fashion Brands, leading retailer as well as, through consulting, international brands in industries like Banking, Manufacturing, Professional Services at both Headquarter and local level. Last but not least I consider myself an eclectic and creative personality, with many interests ranging from technology to arts and poetry.

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