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Christine Overby



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How to develop digital leaders


The uncertainty of the 21st Century demands a new breed of leader. These leaders have a digital mindset. They motivate employees and deliver results in the face of constant change.

Many are missing from today's succession plans and leadership programmes, which were built to develop traditional leaders. To find and nurture this new breed, we need a reboot of both our leadership model and development efforts.

From analogue to digital leadership

Only 16% of executives qualify as ‘digital winners,’ according to research by Oxford Economics. Boards and CEOs try to close this gap by bringing digital into the C-Suite – hiring a Chief Digital Officer or exploring reverse mentorship programs. These efforts help, but they are not adequate. They mistake expertise in emerging technology for digital leadership, and usually only graft basic technical literacy onto existing hierarchical structures.

The reality is that digital and social technologies transform these very structures. Hierarchical decision making — with cascading enforcement — assumes executives have the broadest exposure to critical information. But most employees now have access to customer insights and enterprise data.

Functional leaders oversee departments of employees doing similar work. Until recently, this organisational model was the most efficient for sharing information and collaborating. But now, technologies like Slack, Facebook at Work, and Microsoft Teams support far-flung communities of practice. They enable alternative org models based upon something other than function or product. 

Workplace technologies are the force multipliers of digital leadership. Connected leaders use them to orchestrate work across the small teams and ecosystems that are now the organisation's vital fabric, not its shadow structures. 

Five values embraced by digital leaders

This experience fosters a mindset that sets digital leaders apart from incumbents. What are the elements that make up this mindset?

Openness instead of gut instinct

In stable conditions – when past performance predicted future outcomes – a leader could draw upon years of experience to make gut decisions. This does not work in fast-paced, digital environments. Instead, leaders must adopt a curious mind in which the collective intelligence of employees shapes their strategic decisions and action.

Digital leaders at HSBC treat their enterprise social tools as a kind of 'human sensor network' for new opportunities and challenges. Jenny Varley, Global Head of Content and Employee Digital Platforms, explained the thinking behind this approach: Your employees are your best early warning system.”

Inclusivity over hierarchy

Emerging digital leaders collaborate with the right people to get the job done, rather than just their managers or direct reports. Start-ups practice inclusive leadership, favouring flat organisations in which everyone has the latitude to solve problems.

Valve, the American video game company, sums it up in its employee handbook: "Any time you interview a potential hire, you need to ask yourself...if they’re capable of literally running this company, because they will be."

In larger companies, where flat organisations may not be workable nor ideal, inclusive leadership means reducing hierarchy to a minimum viable level, and empowering more people to orchestrate a team's work. 

Serving instead of commanding

Servant leadership as an alternative to autocracy is not new. Introduced in 1970, with recent champions like Cheryl Bachelder, CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, it is still popular because it complements employee engagement efforts. Pioneering organisations have adopted a radical form of servant leadership.

Haier, the Chinese white goods company, has inverted its organisational pyramid. The closer an employee is to the customer and the market, the more important they are. At Haier, senior leadership is entirely in service of customer-facing teams and business units.

Moving forward, leaders must support employees who are at the coal-face of changing customer requirements and disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence. This may never be a comfortable or stable world of work. But more employees will thrive if their leaders give them the coaching and training to adapt to continuous change. 

Rotational over static

We can no longer conflate leadership and management. In doing so, we over-emphasise the latter – promoting people who are efficient line managers, and focused on status reporting or enforcing policy. Traditional models like situational leadership seek to train more adaptive leadership styles.

In practice, however, it is hard for an individual leader to switch from delegating in one instance to directing specific tasks in the next.

If we distinguish between leadership and management, then we can turn the model on its head. Instead of a leader who picks the right approach to best support the team as needed, what if the team picks the right leader to support the best approach? Spotify employs this type of rotational leadership on squads organised by a common mission, rather than function or product.

In this environment, anyone can be a leader, leadership is not the same as management, and it is expected of everyone. 

Connected teamwork versus individual heroics

Digital leaders know that team output is more important than being the hero. They see their greatest legacy as an organisation that continues to adapt and thrive after they have moved on. These leaders use digital technologies to enable collaboration. They treat them as essential to the working rhythm of their teams – not just a comms afterthought. 

Jos de Blok, CEO of Dutch home-care provider Buurtzorg, shares his ideas on his company's social network to gain feedback from the organisation's community nurses. In new 'team-of-team' org models, leaders create shared awareness by encouraging information flows and emotional connections not just within, but across teams. 

Finding and nurturing emerging digital leaders

Today’s development programmes do little to nurture digital leaders. Succession plans identify leaders in the mould of incumbents. Offsites and 1:1 executive coaching are both expensive and resource-intensive.

As a result, they are typically only lavished on the few who are earmarked for senior positions. These programmes perpetuate hierarchical leadership, in which a few at the top decide on company strategy and growth plans. Also, since fewer women lead FTSE firms than men named John, these programs do little to encourage diversity and inclusive leadership.

We need to reinvest the money.

Companies like Bosch, Nestle, and Daimler empower a community of change agents – or 'digital guides' – to involve the entire firm in transformation. Some use HR analytics to discover change agents on their enterprise social networks. These are the folks whose use of these tools demonstrates their digital mindset.

Other firms like German-based Continental take a more direct approach. They ask for volunteers who are curious, self-motivated, and proficient in business English.

Change agent programs support emerging leaders with new management techniques, playbooks for agile ways of working, and online communities. Digital guides not only enable a more inclusive change process, but also learn how to exercise leadership within connected companies.

We will get better returns – both commercial and societal – by spending our programme budgets on guide networks of employees, who go on to enact change in their parts of the business and blossom as leaders in the process.

3 Responses

  1. I learnt a lot of things from
    I learnt a lot of things from this article like distinguish between leadership and membership in smart way. thank You…

  2. The reality is that digital
    The reality is that digital and social technologies transform these very structures.

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Christine Overby


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