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What is a digital leader (and do you need to be one)?

Digital leadership is now a popular talking point in the world of management theory and practice. As the world goes through a profound digital shift, it’s no wonder leaders are wondering how to navigate the landscape to ensure their success over the long-term.


What is a digital leader? And do you need to be one?


The anatomy of a digital leader


A digital leader is a leader that is proactive about exploring how information technology (IT) can help their organisation become more responsive to their customers’ needs, deliver better products and services (or deliver them differently) and adapt to a changing environment.


Rather than resisting change due to technology, digital leaders are all in. They see how technology can make their organisation more competitive or customer-led. They can lead teams through change to make digital a central part of a business’ operations and culture.


In larger organisations, a digital leader might be in a defined role and head a department – like a Chief Digital Officer. In smaller organisations, digital leadership might be taken on as part of the existing leadership brief, as the business adapts to its changing environment.


Regardless, digital leaders are very much on the front foot when it comes to technology. Open to evolving digital trends, they actively analyse how these may affect or benefit their organisation, act as champions and help design a digitally conscious business future.


Isn’t a digital leader just a leader?


Many attributes of a digital leader are the same as those of a traditional leader.


For example, digital leaders need to have a vision and be able to communicate that through words and their own actions to get teams to deliver the energy required to make any required digital transformation project happen. So digital leaders are still people leaders.


They also need to be good listeners and collaborators. They need to be able to listen to experts in their team (often younger than they are) or collaborate across departments or with external providers, to ensure they are getting the best digital solutions for the future.


In fact, some of these capacities are just as important as the ‘digital’ component.


(Some research suggests the failure rate of digital transformation projects in larger more complex organisations is high - up to 80%. What’s clear is that, when these projects fall over, it’s the people and processes rather than the technology that is causing the damage.)


However, digital leaders are different because of the digital component.


Digital leaders need a level of fluency with technology. Rather than outsourcing everything wholesale to a vendor or an IT team, they need to be personally comfortable with what best practice looks like and what the potential is for technology within the organisation.


This will enable them to speak the language, be more effective persuaders, be more respected by their digital teams and providers, and be able to design solutions that are future fit for their organisation’s requirements, rather than just following the trend or crowd.


Do I need to be one?


There didn’t need to be digital leaders when we didn’t live in a digital world. Now, just as it has been said that software is now ‘eating the world’, is seems the current digital shift is eating into the traditional demands placed on leaders - and becoming a focus for most.


The truth is that all leaders – whether they sit in a small education and training provider or a large national employment services brand – now need to understand what digital leadership means in the context of their business and bring those learnings into how they operate.


That’s because it isn’t just about having a single executive evangelist banging a digital drum anymore. It’s about realising digital needs to be an integral part of operations and culture at all levels, if an organisation is able to survive and deliver on customer expectations.


That doesn’t mean a leader has to be all things digital themselves. Instead, it might mean revamping or retraining their management team and workforce or recruiting in new talent to ensure digital skills are at the centre of the organisational vision into the future.


If leadership is about steering an organisation in ways that will see it grow and thrive, then for most leaders it’s obvious digital transformation will need to be a part of that. That means that (at least in part) future leaders will also need to be digital leaders.