HOLLIS: Do you have what it takes to lead in the digital age?

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Do you have what it takes to lead in the digital age?

digital technology

Digital leaders don’t need to be experts in digital but they do need to understand what digital can do for the business. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Digital disruption is very real and yet, contrary to the wisdom of the crowd, what we need is not leaders who are digital gurus. The technology itself is not what makes us digital; it is how we use the technology as people.

What we need are leaders who are willing and able to leverage digital to innovate, fail forward, improve operations, and drive value for the customer in our red ocean context. At the core, what we need are agile leaders who have a growth mindset.

Research psychologist Carol Dweck contrasts two types of individual mindsets: a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. In essence, a growth mindset reflects the belief that we can change and grow our skills to evolve our talents. In contrast, proponents of the fixed mindset believe that we are born with certain innate talents and abilities – you either have them or you don’t; they are predetermined, static, and can’t be developed because this is how you are “wired”.

While some leaders may appear to be more “wired” than others for the digital age, the indelible truth is digital leadership is a set of skills, like any other, that can be learned over the passage of time; we can grow through the practice of leadership, study, training, reflection and coaching to develop our digital leadership skill sets.

Indeed, most people do not innately possess the digital leadership skills required. With the frenetic pace of technological change, it can even become overwhelming for many and the easier path is to buy into the fixed mindset.

However, as a leader today, we do this at our peril. The reality is that if we aspire to leadership in the digital age, we must purpose to develop our digital leadership skills in order to adapt to the new world of work or we risk being equipped with defunct skills that are no longer relevant in the market.

What worked before will not work today because what we have today is a fundamentally different workplace. Leading in the digital age means letting go of the “command and control” leadership style that dominated in the 20th Century.

Leaders can no longer rely on positional power in the world of work that is increasingly becoming flat; hierarchies have given way to the rise of more agile teams in order to meet the crucial business imperative of getting the business of business done faster and ahead of the competition. Leaders need a new set of skills aligned to the needs of the rapidly evolving digital landscape.

Digital leadership places very specific demands on leadership. Digital leaders don’t need to be experts in digital but they do need to understand what digital can do for the business. How can we achieve more through digital?

A study conducted by MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte University Press titled, “Aligning the Organization for its Digital Future” (July,2016), highlighted that soft skills trump technology knowledge in driving digital transformation:

When asked about the most important skill for leaders to succeed in a digital environment, only 18 per cent of respondents listed technological skills as most important. Instead, they highlighted leadership and managerial attributes such as having a transformative vision (22 per cent), being a forward thinker (20 per cent), having a change-oriented mindset (18 per cent) and other leadership and collaborative skills (22 per cent).

Transformational leadership came out as the top skill required by leaders; the ability to lead people through the digital transformation. Getting people to think creatively about what you can do with digital in order to build digital awareness and to reframe their thinking of how you can add value to the business through digital.

Taking a big picture view of how you drive stronger congruence between culture, organizational structure and talent in order to seed an ecosystem that nurtures and supports transformational growth. These are the hallmarks of a transformational leader.

“Coming of Age Digitally” (June,2018), the latest research from MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte University Press, has reinforced this focus on soft skills. The report highlights that digital leaders need to be able to get people to collaborate across boundaries, delegate and empower people to act, and create conditions for people to experiment and innovate.

Leaders need to be able to make decisions in an uncertain environment, persuade and influence stakeholders, inspire others to act and promote a culture of continuous self-development to build talent.

On balance, our research shows that while we need to be digitally literate and understand technology, leadership and managerial skills are most valued for enabling success in a digital workplace.

The “I” in the storm of the digital age and the choices you make will determine your ability to succeed as a leader in the digital era. Agile organizations require agile leadership. By choosing to adapt and adopt digital in the way you think and act, you can develop as an effective digital leader.

What this will take is discarding the fixed mindset and unreservedly embracing the notion that you can grow and even excel in the new world of work. If you aspire to be a leader in the digital age, the call to action is to purpose to believe and have the courage to reinvent how you lead. Carpe momentum.

Debbie Hollis, Senior manager, Deloitte East Africa.

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