We are in the midst of a global, technology-led revolution. Companies are forced to develop new leadership capabilities as they adjust to the rapidly emerging digital economy. Traditional ways of management have been called into question, catalysing the re-design of many traditional, analog processes. The change reflects a new way of thinking about leading within an organisation. It is now both the obligation of, and opportunity for, leaders to harness new social and digital tools and pioneer a fundamental shift back to the most important asset of businesses today – their people.
But, what does digital leadership really look like? And, how can organisations nurture their leaders so they can thrive and succeed in the digital age?
To answer those questions, Post*Shift – a UK-based specialist consulting company focused on how social technologies create connected organisations – has launched an event, ‘Building Digital Leadership Superpowers Within Your Org‘. MARGINALIA readers are invited to take part on 28 March in London to glean practical insights. The evening event is open to HR professionals and those who are responsible for discovering, identifying, and developing digital leadership skills inside their organisations.
I wanted to speak with Christine Overby (pictured right), the CEO of Shift*Base, the research arm of Post*Shift, to explore the characteristics of leadership in the digital environment and learn more about the event.
Overby shares not only her robust research on digital transformation, but also the attributes and capabilities that leaders should develop to stay ahead in the connected workplace. “Many people confuse digital leadership with being an expert on emerging technologies. But, digital leadership is much more of a mindset and attitude. At the most basic level, it is the ability to motivate employees and to deliver results in the face of constant change. The change is digital because social tools and the ways people use them are driving the change.”
Gloria Lombardi: Last year, you interviewed 25 leaders as part of a key piece of research on digital transformation. You looked at the leadership capabilities of Chief Executive Officers, Chief Digital Officers, Heads of Human Resources, and other senior leaders. Can you share some key findings from the conversations you had?
Christine Overby: The successful leaders included in the study are drivers, not just sponsors. They treat digital transformation in the same way that they would treat a merger and acquisition – as something mission-critical to the business. They commit to it publicly, and put measurements and metrics in place. They make it clear to everyone what it is going to take for their company to transform.
But, digital leadership is not just about the CEO and the board. Many interviewees talked about a mind-shift. They look for leaders up and down the business. And, not even necessarily employees who know about a digital business per se, but, people who are open-minded, customer-focused, and interested in the market dynamics. A lot of talent acquisition now focuses on hiring people with such skillsets.
GL: At Shift*Base, you look into the circumstances of constant change, and the influence of digital and social tools. Have you identified any specific attributes of digital leadership?
CO: Absolutely. First and foremost, curiosity. Effective digital leaders don’t jump to conclusions quickly. They don’t make snap judgements. They listen with an open mind. They engage with their front-line employees, and diagnose the problems and opportunities that are out there. And they use social and digital tools to listen and engage.
Successful digital leaders are also networked. They understand the power of human relationships to figure out new ways of solving problems and organising work. They use social networking tools to motivate people, show their work, decisions, and processes. Some call it working out loud, which is an increasingly popular method used among companies.
Another attribute is situational leadership. Business situations change frequently and leaders must be able to adapt their styles accordingly.
Employees have different competencies and attitudes. In some circumstances, their companies will be well matched to objectives, they’ll know what they to do, and feel positive. In such circumstances, they need a leader who just gives them a little direction, and lets them get on with things (while still being available).
But there are other situations when employees might deal with something completely unknown. Without the relevant experience and skills, they will lack confidence and feel negative and unsure. In these circumstances, a leader needs to step in, be supportive, and ensure training is provided – and even be a bit prescriptive, explaining exactly what needs to be done.
Servant leadership is key too. It has always been important but it becomes even more crucial in a digital environment. Front-line employees face customer problems and see the opportunities. As a leader, it is your responsibility is to serve those teams – not the other way around. This was summed well by General Mark Welsh, Retired Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, who gave a speech at the Air Force Academy, saying: “Leadership is a gift. It is given by those who follow. You have to be worthy of it”.
GL: What role does social technology play in digital leadership?
CO: Social technology enables new ways of working that supports digital leadership across the enterprise.
Employees from every corner of the business see and hear things from customers and the market on a daily basis. Without social technology, a leader might not even know anything about pressing matters. So, those tools become an organisation’s “human sensor network”, an early-warning system for leaders to listen to employees.
To give you a personal example, at Post*Shift and Shift*Base, we run the entire organisation as agile. The social technology has given me the means to completely change my work style. We use Slack, wikis, and other social technologies to narrate our work – anyone can drop in and see what I am working on; I can drop in and see what everyone else is working on, in any given moment. Every week, we look at the progress we make, and we constantly run experiments. There are some days when I still feel awkward and vulnerable. But, with that it also comes trust. And, you only trust someone by investing in social relationships. And today, a lot of those social relationships are built through social technology and the communities we create to get the work done.
GL: Going back to one of your earlier points, that digital leaders can be found in every corner of an organisation, is this change affecting the structure of organisations?
CO: At Shift*Base, we have started to see a change in some teams’ structures, which gives more workers the opportunity to lead. Historically, many business functions were created to make people work together and build their skills in a certain area – people were clustered around the same group such as marketing, accounting, etc. Oftentimes, those teams would be co-located physically to be able to work and communicate.
Social tools enable people to work with one another regardless of whether they sit within the organisation (hierarchically or physically). Workers do not have to go up and down the hierarchy to be seen. And teams can be re-defined in new ways. For instance, a group can be re-created just to solve an occurring customer problem bringing in different skills that are necessary for dealing with that situation. In those types of environments, the problem at hand allows multiple individuals to step up and take leadership positions. Even if they are not technically a manager.
GL: Is this change in team structure and leadership happening in some types of organisations more than others?
CO: It happens frequently within the tech start-up scene. In those types of organisations, there is openness and the belief that leadership can come from anywhere. Valve is a good example of such a mentality.
Inside many large organisations, it’s still tricky. Often, HR identifies their leaders based upon the old notion of hierarchy and command and control. So, classic succession plans and leadership programs often miss people, talent, and opportunities to innovate because they don’t look for the right attributes in the first place.
However, some companies are starting to use analytics to uncover the hidden leaders within an organisation – the employees who display curiosity day-to-day, leaving a digital footprint on the company’s networks. So, it becomes easier to discover the leaders within the business.
GL: On top of the attributes that you identified, are there some hard skills that digital leaders should build?
CO: One is the ability to analyse data. Digital leaders do not have to be data scientists or statisticians. But, they need at least a basic understanding of the difference between correlation and causality. How do they know that the data is leading them in the right direction? Business is data-driven, and a leader has to have confidence and fluency with numbers. For me, that skill is analogous to critical thinking.
The second skill is storytelling. It requires having a sense of the destination and being able to tell stories that help teams to be emotionally connected with that vision. They could be personal stories or customer stories. In any case, leaders have to have the ability to take them from the abstract and make them real because, as humans, we connect through stories.
GL: What’s your view on the role of internal communications in the digital age?
CO: There is absolutely a new role for internal communicators in the digital workplace. In the past, most of their efforts were around figuring out the one corporate story and pushing it out. But, now, it is about the ability to draw in different stories from employees and customers.
The change that comes from digital manifests itself in different ways. For example, the customer facing team may need to build capabilities around empathy and listening; the product team may need to build capabilities around agility and velocity. With each of these capabilities come specific stories on how to get there, and what the destination looks like. So, today, the role of internal communicators is to curate all those stories – in a two-way and multi-way fashion, in contrast to that one-way of storytelling they adopted in the past.
GL: The attendees of the ‘Building Digital Leadership’ event (28th March), will be able to learn how to become a successful leader in the digital workplace. What else can participants expect from the workshop?
CO: The evening event is open to practitioners, such as HR professionals, who are responsible for discovering, identifying, and developing digital leadership skills inside their organisations. We will provide participants with the new models of leadership that we have been seeing work effectively inside companies. We will also host a panel discussion where attendees can talk about how they are doing it within their organisation. So, it is an opportunity for anyone interested in this topical subject to come together, get a sense of what is going on, practice it, and test out their ideas.
Book your free ticket now to secure one of the limited spaces.
28th March 2017, 5:30pm, London
Picture of business man alone in the office: Bethany Legg
Picture of girl browsing social media sites: Roman Drits