Leading people in the times of digital transformation

The work world continues its metamorphosis as organizations increasingly leverage technology to modernize their business strategies. As the pace of change intensifies, many companies just cannot compete as competition rains in from every direction.

“Digital platforms now deliver immense value, enabling us to connect, collaborate and broaden our minds – raising awareness about important issues, bringing people together for a common purpose and achieving new breakthroughs.”

The digital revolution has launched a new era of human empowerment and engagement across business, society and in every aspect of our lives. Never before has there been a more powerful influence on human behavior, irrespective of country or culture, than the combined effect of digital technologies.  The effects of this shift on society are tremendous and, in particular, are dramatically changing our leadership responsibilities whether in politics, professionals in business, teachers in school or parents raising children.

As our work world becomes increasingly digital, understanding the role of digital technology in shaping culture and behavior and using it to an advantage –is key to effective leadership in the future. More and more companies are embracing advanced technologies to decrease the cost of production and increase profitability.

While organizations are grappling with the market disruptions due to digital transformation, leaders are expected to not only keeping pace with the ever changing business environment, but also ensuring successful adoption of digital solutions, achieving desired outcomes and also aligning all employees to the established digital transformation imperatives.

"Digital transformation is challenging how the leaders interact, communicate, develop, and oversee the performances of their people. Leaders are expected to create an environment of teamwork, where people can constantly learn, adopt and adapt to the digital systems."

However, in the digital era, physical presence of leaders has been mostly substituted with virtual form of leadership. Thus, further adding to the challenge of connecting emotionally and establishing the much desired interpersonal connect with the team.

We all know the importance of physical interactions and how it helps leaders to gauge responses and actions of colleagues and team members, according to their emotional disposition, which is missing in a digital communication setup and making it difficult for a leader to read or interpret employee emotions.

Where Should You Focus? - Not every competency has the same impact on an organization’s digital performance. Following six competencies that have the greatest impact on performance and of these six most critical skills, most leaders are relatively strong in four areas, weaker in two:-

  • Lead with digitization. Organizations need leaders who understand the impact digital tech can have on their businesses. They sense what is and isn’t possible and, more important, sense what will be possible. They look to standardize and automate processes to generate new insights they can leverage for differentiated capabilities. This is a relatively weak area for leaders.
  1. Adaptability is a must. Digital leaders must be able to adapt to constant change or fall behind. They need to be learning every day, not getting caught up in “traditions.” This is a relative leadership strength.
  • Execution. It’s one thing to anticipate change. But it takes another set of skills altogether to turn new ideas into reality. This also is a strength.
  • Hyper-collaboration is about working relentlessly to break down silos. It’s getting people working together to solve customers’ and the organization’s issues. Again, this is a relative leadership strength.
  1. Identify and develop new talent. Leaders need to spot and rapidly bring on board the digitally savvy talent of tomorrow. Leaders do relatively well in this area.
  1. A 360 view. Leaders must be able to spot patterns and bring thinking together from multiple perspectives. This is a real weakness.

Although, information technology in this era offers multiple mediums of interacting and communicating seamlessly, there are certain softer aspects which the leaders are required to adapt to and manage with utmost care. For communications in virtual settings, the information could possibly lose its social or contextual meaning compared to traditional face-to face conversations that allows for direct responses. Additionally, e-leaders find it difficult to communicate to their global teams due to different time zones.

Digital transformation has enabled globalization, helping companies spread their businesses across the globe. However, leaders have a challenge developing a single communication strategy or approach when working with such dispersed staff and high cultural sensitivity.

  • Changing different cultural etiquette is a huge challenge. It is noteworthy that what might be standard and acceptable in one country might not be appreciated in another. So a leader with dispersed workforce must be mindful of local norms and cultures to avoid conflicts.
  • Managing accountability is another significant challenge posed in managing virtual teams working remotely and away from company premises. This dispersed workforce works with a high level of autonomy and requires a high level of personal accountability & commitment to achieve results.
  • Hiring new resources only adds to the worries of these leaders. With fewer direct interactions in digital communication, leaders find it difficult to maintain interpersonal relations with their followers.

Where to Start?

  • Start by identifying critical leadership roles and assess readiness of your talent to embrace and pioneer digital transformation.
  • Rethink your competency framework to include emergent knowledge and skills to focus leader development. Many companies going through unprecedented change have not reexamined their competency models.
  • Develop digital accelerator leadership-immersion programs. This is an excellent approach to building both technical know-how and leadership capability.
  • Move beyond simply “doing digital” via discrete technology implementations to “being digital,” an embedded leadership mindset and way of working.
  • Become a student of all things digital. Whether it is connecting with employees using the latest social media tool, engaging with your children, revamping outdated policies, or simply reading emerging research, leaders must be the first adopters of digital trends and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
  • Forget hierarchy. The digital world is one of empowered, individualized experiences, and leaders must embrace that it has no boundaries or titles. By nature, digital technology is diverse and inclusive and, when nurtured, can give leaders endless opportunities to harness innovation, solve problems, share knowledge and learn from others.
  • Think beyond reality. Human workers are being replaced by a digital workforce with the unstoppable development of artificial intelligence. We’re not only talking about physical robots and self-driving cars; we’re talking about software agents that carry out repeatable routine activities with increasing cognitive ability as they “learn” by doing.
  • Hang on to your values. As we’ve seen, the spectrum of emotions, experiences and behaviors driven by digital are vast, and no one is immune to its influence. Our personal values can be easily corrupted if we are not careful in protecting them, so in the wake of all that noise, leaders – and everyone – must remember what and who is truly important, set boundaries and act accordingly.

With all the variances between generations, leaders have to evolve their styles to motivate a very diverse workforce.

Here are Top 8 Skills of Today's Digital Leaders:-

  • Digital Literacy - As defined by Cornell University, digital literacy is the ability to find, evaluate, utilize, share and create content using information technologies and the internet. Literacy is not only technical, it requires cognitive, critical, creative and social skills. It is safe to say that you are never done learning when it comes to digital technology.
  • Digital Vision - When building a digital strategy, sell the idea of the long-term benefits the new technologies will bring.
  1. Advocacy - As a leader you set the tone for the rest of the organization. Advocacy is all about energizing people about the digital vision. An Investing time in your own literacy encourages others to pursue similar knowledge.
  • Presence - Presence is a form of advocacy that translates to "walking the walk." Leaders can have a clear digital vision and strongly advocate for it, but if they aren’t visibly practicing it where the workforce can see, no one will buy what you’re selling.
  • Communication - Your communication style backs up your presence. Consider your messaging practices and how they may or may not portray your digital vision.
  1. Adaptability - Developing openness to explore new technologies and taking a flexible approach to how you conceive the digital workplace will strengthen your adaptability muscle.
  • Self-Awareness - In this era, leadership requires a high degree of self-awareness.”  The level of connectivity today is unprecedented — for leaders and for the broader workforce. The boundaries between inside and outside the office are now blurred. Leaders should reflect on their approach and how it may affect others. This should become a natural and ongoing practice.
  • Cultural Awareness - Cultural awareness is the lens through which you view your digital vision. It encompasses the values needed for success. During times of communication and participation leaders should remember sensitivity in the digital workplace, as well as retain an awareness of cultural differences.

How to Differentiate?

  • Lead for the future of the organization. Nurture and develop leaders as much as those running the legacy business. New leaders will not only require a technical mindset, but also the imagination and vision of how technology can enable their organization’s competitive position.
  • Foster a digital ecosystem for leaders to thrive. This includes new approaches to learning, rewards, use of space, and elimination of hierarchies. Place great digitally ready leaders in a traditional culture, and they will surely fail.

In conclusion, it is important to acknowledge the need for leadership training, and accordingly tailor the trainings aligned to current digital technologies, will benefit the organizations in their digital transformation journey. Looking to the near future, every organization will need to embrace new technologies if they are to flourish. And, those with the most capable digital-ready leaders will continue to stay ahead of the curve.

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