The world is more connected now than it ever was. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, and the future is fraught with uncertainty. With new technologies entering the market daily and an unpredictable and challenging future ahead of us, the successful business leader of today is a vastly different animal to the business leader of years gone by. In a world driven by technology and devices, how you lead people will determine whether your business succeeds, or fades into obsolescence.
Traditional business leadership has always taken the form of an ego-driven, top-down, hierarchical management style of command and control. Thinking is slow and risk-averse, and teams and their leaders tend to work in silos. Many companies still operate within this paradigm, but the companies that are making their mark as firms of the future are those led by strong digital leaders who can guide their people and their organisations through ambiguity and chaos and build an inclusive future for them—no matter their position in the company.
With the old top-down approach no longer being sustainable, organisations of the future need to create leaders at all levels. Traditional management styles have only served to slow down decision-making, and, in the fast-paced world of today, silos need to be broken down to that people can work together to quickly and creatively solve customer and organisational issues. In a digitally-led company, everybody needs to participate and contribute, and everybody’s perspective is considered.
It may come across as counter-intuitive, but digital leadership is more about understanding people than it is about understanding technology. Digital leadership is about creating culture and capability. Because of its collaborative nature, it’s about doing things better rather than doing things faster. Instead of major decisions being made only at the top, digital leaders encourage everyone in their organisation to contribute ideas and insights before a final decision is made. Critical and creative thinking is encouraged, being disruptive is welcomed, and failure is not frowned upon—something that goes a long way in inspiring innovation and creativity. When traditional rules and boundaries fall away like this, people are able to find true meaning in their work—and this makes great things possible.
Shaped by the Internet era, digital leaders have a radically different mindset to their more-traditional counterparts. Found at all levels of an organisation, digital leaders inspire others to follow them because they are open, honest and kind, and are able to manage risk and uncertainty with ease. They are approachable, emotionally intelligent, collaborative, humble, forward-thinking, creative and ambitious. Operating within a culture of trust and openness, they openly support and drive change. They have excellent communication skills. They are able to deliver their message clearly and succinctly so that everybody understands what the company (or the team) is trying to achieve, and why. They know when to listen, when to ask questions, and when to tap into a diverse range of highly-skilled individuals and allow others to take the lead.
Great digital leaders encourage lifelong learning within their organisations so that their people can face the future with confidence. They are comfortable with not knowing everything, and not having all the answers—something that a traditional leader would be mortified to admit. They are highly adaptable to pressure and constant change, and are adept at dealing with and making sense of large volumes of information. They are able to break complex tasks down into bite-size chunks, presenting their teams with simple steps towards getting things done. Most importantly, they are able to make decisions with agility and move their people forward—especially when circumstances change and projects suddenly lose significance.
In the digital age, feedback is instant and constant. A great digital leader knows this, and is generally obsessed with the customer experience. They understand how fickle today’s connected customer is, and they are terrified of disappointing them. The digital leader understands that their brand is no longer what they say about their brand, but what their customers are saying. People on social media can make or break a product or brand with one scathing comment or review. The digital leader knows that their customers no longer rely on word-of-mouth or advertising to decide where to shop and what to purchase—a simple Google search will show companies offering similar products and services, and there are even sites where customers can go and compare suppliers based on reviews and recommendations. Their number one aim, therefore, is to nurture their customer base and turn their customers into company cheerleaders.
There is a new generation of employee permeating the workforce, and seamlessly integrating into more traditional work environments is not an area in which they can be expected to shine. It is commonplace for employers to see their staff as inherently lazy and untrustworthy, which explains why micromanaging is still commonplace in many organisations. This mindset does not sit well with digital-age workers, many of whom are millennials. This digital-age generation of worker thrives in environments of collaboration, autonomy, and creativity. As employees, they are self-motivated, results-driven, and able to get on with things without the need for their managers to be continuously checking up on them or breathing down their necks. This new type of worker will not merely blindly accept authority or do what they are told because “this is the way things have always been done”. Instead, they need to be lead, motivated and mentored. They also want the freedom to be able to choose how and when and where they work. The opportunity to work remotely is not only appreciated but sought-after. Traditional managers who are not prepared to upskill themselves to become the type of manager required in this new digital working environment will soon learn that their good people have quickly moved on to greener pastures.
A healthy company culture within a digital organisation provides a set of guiding principles, or code of conduct, that tells individuals what types of behaviours that are appropriate, and how to make decisions that are in line with the organisations overall goals and strategies. In a digital organisation, decision-making is diffused throughout the company, allowing employees to use their own judgment when making decisions. The culture is flatter (as opposed to hierarchical) which allows for quick decision making. Every single employee within the organisation has the latitude to make judgement calls and on-the-spot decisions because there is one singular focus—the customer. Employees are encouraged to put themselves in the customer’s shoes and engage with leaders and colleagues, and the customer too, to find new solutions.
Is it a case of adapt or die if traditional leaders and their companies want to survive in the digital age? Is it possible to teach an old dog new tricks, or is it a safer bet to bring in a new puppy? The truth of the matter is that leaders who are stuck in old ways of doing things and refuse to evolve will eventually find either themselves or their companies becoming obsolete. Traditional leaders armed with decades of knowledge and experience are well worth investing in if they are ready to evolve. Often it is merely a case of filling a few gaps in their knowledge—and then helping them to understand that it is okay not to have all the answers.
The leader of today needs to be able to succeed in a digitally disrupted world. Technology, the right mix of like-minded, highly-motivated people, and a customer-centric approach to doing business are what is going to set organisations apart from their competitors in the digital age. With traditional boundaries falling away, and where critical thinking and failing forward is encouraged, innovation will flourish. Digital leaders who get down in the trenches with their people will inspire their teams to push beyond their boundaries and try new ways of doing things. Ultimately, it is organisations with tech-savvy leaders that will no doubt outperform their non-digital counterparts in the long run.