Success in leadership calls for a deep understanding of how to run and grow a business within the specific climate that it operates in, from strategic thinking to a strong understanding of the principles of people and change management, and leaders must be able to effectively persuade, influence and inspire their people to move organisations towards their goals.
Core business principles, such as the balancing of finances and appreciation of market forces, have been long-standing leadership strands and as the notion of ‘leadership’ evolves, a rich grasp of digital’s capabilities and how it can help a business to prosper is every bit as important as these established principles: digital knowledge is no longer a nice-to-have for today’s leaders.
In five years’ time, we won’t be talking about ‘digital leadership’ anymore, it will just be embedded in modern leadership.
Meeting internal and external digital expectations
Consumers today expect, and deserve, a solid digital experience: there really is no business, operating in any sector in the UK, that will not have a customer looking to be able to do everything they need, and receive a seamless service, via a mobile device or computer. Times have well and truly moved on.
‘Consumers’ of course, are not just end users or customers - consumers are also employees, who have their own exceedingly high expectations based on the fast, efficient and satisfying digital interactions that they are exposed to daily in their lives. This appetite for digital excellence and innovation doesn’t stop when these individuals enter the workplace. Our ways of working and expectations of organisations have evolved, and if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that digital can be a tremendous force for good during the most testing of times. So many organisations have had to embark on an enormous change curve over the last year and a half and now is the time to maximise on this with eyes fixed on the future.
To capitalise on the sizeable digital strides forward that have been made by so many businesses since early 2020, a certain leadership capability and digital appreciation is needed to be able to think in a different way about digital. It’s about understanding how digital can positively impact the work you do as an organisation - both internally and externally - while also recognising and curiously exploring what’s out there and available to you to help your business grow and prosper.
Huge opportunity for the third sector and SME’s
All sectors benefit from digital adoption and investment, but some sectors have more to gain than others - these are the organisations with the biggest potential to ‘leapfrog forward’ into the new world and make a real difference to their beneficiaries and stakeholders.
Not-for-profits are now in a prime position to achieve great things through digital transformation going forward, with most charities having recognised the need to pivot and invest in order to provide services digitally in a way that they didn’t have to before in a pre-Covid world. Almost overnight, so many barriers have been removed, and now there’s a colossal opportunity for charities that are able to work in an agile way and climb the digital maturity curve quickly. By leveraging the right technologies and strategically utilising valuable technology with purpose, together with an intent to truly know and engage customers, there is a sizeable opportunity to really elevate fundraising efforts.
Now is also the perfect time for smaller businesses to do more and stand out within competitive markets: SMEs now have access to buy and utilise the same tech solutions as much larger corporates – from comprehensive content management systems to intelligent websites - for the same price, levelling out the playing field. Digital is no longer cost-prohibitive.
It all comes down to appetite and strategic intent: those leaders who embrace digital now can expect to benefit from operational efficiency gains and big cost reductions in the long run.
A strategic approach to digital adoption
Anyone can spend money on the latest and greatest tech - but a “let’s buy some kit” mindset will only take you to the door of possibilities; you won’t be able to walk through it. Without a workforce that’s capable of, or interested in, using the technology, and without users who are engaged with adopting it, then it’s simply tech for tech’s sake. This is where leaders come in: digital leadership is just as much about understanding technology, being comfortable with digital possibilities and change as it is about inspiring people to use it and recognising the challenges of some to accessing it.
If you’re thinking about your staff and their capabilities and readiness to embrace technology, you need to look ahead to how your workforce may need to change and adapt to meet the expectations of digitally led consumers. A digital divide remains in the UK, underscoring the deep inequalities that still exist within our society, yet an explosion of affordable, connected technology means that most of the population now has access to devices and interacts online daily, and that’s before considering the next generation of truly digital natives now entering the workforce.
So much of the digital conversation early last year centred around digital transformation - yet the language now needs to change and evolve within organisations, driven by forward-thinking leaders. Digital is now essential to enable you to be efficient and effective in business and to achieve your strategic goals - it’s about looking to the future and delivering the best possible service to all, not reacting to the unexpected. It’s about understanding your digital maturity.
The essential digital skills for today’s business leaders
Harnessing an agile mindset is imperative for digital leaders. Today’s leaders need to focus more on thinking “yes, we failed fast, but we learnt” and then be able to move fast when the time is right, recognising the need for swift investment: fear of failure must be overcome - the best leaders understand that output isn’t what should be measured; it should be outcomes and the learning gained along the way.
Decisive action requires both a risk appetite and an understanding of digital and its rich possibilities - it’s about thinking bigger and faster, always asking whether you can afford not to invest, and then effectively communicating the journey throughout to ensure everyone in the organisation is on the same path. This requires a shift to be taken from reactive to proactive risk taking, understanding that risk, in and of itself, isn’t bad, and can be a positive opportunity to make big changes for the future.
Working in an agile way and encouraging this as a leader means that your people will explore and take risks and innovate from a position of how digital can help the organisation in the long term. It’s not always a linear process, and sometimes you’ll take two steps back before you leap forward.
True digital leaders need both a level of digital literacy (technical skills and the ability to use technology) and to be digital advocates, actively driving behaviour change and encouraging the culture within the business to adopt digital. Without ‘leading by example’ digitally and being authentic, a strong digital vision can never become a reality.
Leaders now have a pivotal role to play in taking digital risks and empowering staff to explore the possibilities; two-way communication is essential to fostering an internal culture of experimentation and innovation.
A ‘whole organisation’ journey towards digital maturity
If you want to digitally mature as a business, you will likely have to both educate and shift the mindsets of some of your existing people as well as actively recruit individuals with a digital focus and appetite to innovate. Digital aptitude should be fundamental to any skills assessment that your business carries out when it comes to future recruitment - as without your team having the right capability, only so much positive change can be achieved.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to getting digital leadership right - every business is unique. Yet to implement true change, a ‘bottom up’ culture is essential when it comes to encouraging and cultivating innovation within your team. Your people need to be invited to speak up for change and different ways of working and be heard. Curiosity breeds excitement about future possibilities; with excitement comes a desire for change.
Leaders also need to be able to ‘let go’ sometimes and focus on the bigger picture. Digital is the biggest democratisation of bureaucratic leadership out there: with all information suddenly available and your people empowered to work at their highest possible level, there is no more control: the genie is well and truly out of the bottle! Yet this is the only way to achieve wonderful things: by enabling your people and implanting the curiosity to change and evolve, creativity and energy will flow and flourish - and then, the greatest challenge will be to keep pace.
Looking forward with a clear focus
It’s all too easy to embark on a digital maturity journey, build internal appetite to evolve, but then lose steam and momentum. When transitioning digitally, it’s important to recognise that you should never do anything in a silo, alone: if you create awareness and you don’t create association, then you get disassociation, and this can cripple the ability to make anything happen. Climate change is a fitting example of this - the problem is so vast that it can be hard to really associate with it and engage in a way that feels tangible and impactful. Association is essential to creating the feeling of a shared problem and then building agency around its solution: encouraging autonomy increases the chance of ‘buy in’ and prevents burnout.
All truly transformative change happens when people aren’t being ‘done to’ - digital success follows core change management principles that have existed for decades; without your people on board and bought into the vision, long-term change can never be achieved.
The ability to understand, recognise and effectively communicate the many possibilities of digital is now core to modern leadership - and will be ever more so as we emerge from the pandemic and look forward towards an exciting new world with our eyes wide open.
Are you a business leader looking to take the first steps on a digital maturity journey - but you’re not sure how to put your best foot forward?
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About the author
Digital Strategy & Solutions Architect
Chief Wondermaker and Head of Big Thinking, Tech Innovation & Solution Design at the wonderlab of all things digital, Nathan is the lead data scientist and "Super Thinker" in the team - and makes a great cup of coffee (or two).