Digital leadership qualities are quickly evolving as businesses are realizing that traditional approaches will not always suit digital initiatives. Realizing digital capabilities is a strategic objective for leaders across nearly every industry, and has been for some time. The focus on digital was only hastened in 2020 when the global COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to operate virtually and engage customers and stakeholders through digital means.
Unfortunately, as long as digital transformation has been a trend, digital transformation failure has been equally trending. Headlines like “Why Digital Transformations Fail” and “How to Avoid These 7 Digital Transformation Pitfalls” are littered across every business or industry publication. For all of the innovations we’ve made technologically, the path to digital remains as mercurial as ever. In most cases, the “digital” half of the equation isn’t the issue, it’s the “transformation”. Why? Because digital transformation isn’t about the technology, it’s about the people.
Organizational change starts with a committed leadership team showing the path forward. Over the years, leaders have taken different approaches to transformation. Below, we’ve outlined 4 digital leadership qualities that successful individuals have exhibited in leading their team, department, or organization through a successful digital initiative. Is it an exhaustive list? By no means. Success in digital must account for the nuanced idiosyncrasies that make up your business, your goals, and perhaps most importantly, your customers. These qualities, however, are a strong foundation for growth as a digital leader and will serve to create a culture that not only supports but actively promotes innovation through digital transformation.
They Know They’re Not the Smartest Person in the Room
Following the industrial revolution, the top-down approach to leadership went mainstream. Masses of unskilled workers relied on authoritative leadership to drive the business forward. Over time, top-down leadership has evolved but it remains rooted in a simple strategy – senior leaders in an organization make key business decisions and are responsible for directing the work of more junior employees. Needless to say, the top-down approach sparked by leaders like Henry Ford in the previous industrial revolution will have less success as we make our way through the current digital revolution. That’s not to say that top-down leadership must be tossed out entirely – like many things, it just has to evolve.
Successful leaders today know they’re not the smartest person in the room and they also know that they never will be. Instead, they focus on two things – 1) bringing the right talent to the table and 2) getting out of their way. Leading a business through digital isn’t a single-file march onward with the leader out front paving the way. Instead, it’s leading from behind.
Today’s digital leader hires a high-performing team and then focuses all of their efforts on removing the barriers to the teams’ success by, for example, leveraging their own workplace capital to gain buy-in with the rest of their leadership team and enable cross-functional collaboration.
But it’s not just removing obstacles, it’s also about knowing when to take direction from the bottom. Successful digital leaders have the trust in their people and the humility in themselves to know when they don’t know and allow decision-making to shift and accommodate accordingly.
They Go Deep, Not Wide
It’s tempting to go all in on digital transformation. Newsfeeds are on a constant loop showcasing leaders who took big swings and netted even bigger returns as a result. When it comes to digital, this (to borrow a cliched phrase) “boil the ocean” approach opens transformation up to more risks and potential points of failure. Worst of all, it muddies a leader’s ability to effectively and succinctly demonstrate progress against stated goals.
Digital leaders will still swing big but with laser focus. They look at the key areas of their business and focus efforts on tackling a single issue where they can show measurable, demonstrable progress. They dive exceptionally deep into the people, processes, resources, and systems around that issue and use that now-encyclopedic understanding to drive the creation of a coherent, succinct plan with specific targets and metrics.
As organizations were thrust into digital transformation over the course of 2020, this piecemeal approach may have seemed like a luxury but its core tenets remain. In pursuit of digital transformation, it’s just as important to know what not to include in your journey. Peel away the areas of the business with little impact to your customers and focus efforts to the areas that will drive the most powerful transformation for your customer base.
They Think in Years and Act in Seconds
Realizing digital in your business is all about the long game and effective leaders keep that as a constant focus. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in the planning and day-to-day decision-making when embarking on a digital initiative. What’s even easier is losing sight of the ultimate objectives for a digital project. Digital leaders use those objectives as a barometer by which decisions are made and act quickly on any threats to those long-term goals.
Focusing on outcomes rather than outputs allows leaders to ensure a greater alignment to the project’s stated objectives. Far too many organizations find themselves with a digital project plan where every step has been taken and accounted for but the promised benefits still aren’t there.
Staying aligned to the outcomes also prevents an overemphasis on the digital tools themselves. That is, (to borrow from Gartner Associate Principal Analyst Apoorva Chhabra in this excellent article):
Digital leaders never consider digital to be the outcome
Storytelling, most often reserved for writers and artists, is one of the more critically overlooked digital leadership qualities. No, digital leaders shouldn’t be prepared to write a fantasy novel or draft up a compelling storyboard – but they should be prepared to emotionally engage stakeholders internally and customers externally in order to realize the value of digital.
So much of digital is about creating an experience for your customers and what’s an experience but an interactive narrative between your customers and your business? Digital leaders know how to create a narrative – one that engages, teaches, and even entertains at times. They apply their storytelling skills to create a cohesive organizational narrative and then leverage digital tools to bring that story to life.
That same storytelling approach is also how successful digital leaders create excitement, buy-in, and ultimately adoption internally. They craft the change narrative for internal stakeholders in order to engage them as characters in the story. They craft a winning narrative, not through literary devices, but through the tools and tactics their organization understands – whether that’s direct conversations, working sessions, KPIs, live demos, or town halls.
It would be much simpler if every leader could adopt these digital leadership qualities and perfect digital in their business but this is really just a start. Success in digital is incredibly contextual to the business and will require a tailored approach that incorporates the business’ current state and future objectives. That said, whether your business is launching a new website, building out your digital lab, or adopting a new digital platform, these qualities will be a critical foundation.