The Emergence of a Digital Leader in Navigating Change [guest post by Karolina Lewandowska]

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    Hello Readers,


    I have some big shoes to fill playing the role of this blog’s co-host while Kim is on sabbatical for 3 months. I’m EMEA Change and Transformation Manager in the Google Cloud organisation based out of London, and I’ve spent the past 6 years advising our customers and partners across Europe and Asia on the successful change programs with Google technology.


    What is the role leaders play in a digital world?

    I recently attended an interesting event on the topic of the role of digital leadership organised by Duke Corporate Education that inspired me to write this post about digital leaders. The event discussions oscillated around the new role that leaders play in a technology-oriented world, and on the possible implications that emerging quality of leadership brings to organisations.


    I have attempted to determine who a ‘digital leader’ is, and came to the conclusion that there is no single definition (it looks like Wikipedia is still working on it too…). Is it the person who is more aware of the implications that technology brings to an organisation? Is it someone who pursues digital strategy? Or perhaps it's a term reserved for such personalities as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Larry Page? In my personal opinion, digital leader is someone who strategically uses company digital assets to achieve business goals and focuses on the quality of functional value of those assets. Although the debate on a definition is ongoing, I think we all agree that the role of leadership is evolving in a digital era and it requires some new leader's attributes. For those of you who haven’t seen it, a good starting point to learn about those attributes is Google’s research on making managers awesome listing eight desired behaviors they should demonstrate.


    So what are some of those new attributes?

    Knowing when to shut up and let the data do the talking

    There is a well-known perception that to be a good leader, one needs to constantly add value. This is the consequence of the top-down management style where their job was to tell everyone involved what to do. This type of management has in fact many advantages as it “allows leaders to be clear on goals and expectations. It also gives employees more time to focus on work duties instead of attending meetings discussing potential directions of the company." ( In fact, many of those leaders realise that the world has changed and most of their subordinates know more in specific areas (acting as subject matter experts) than they ever will. Therefore, active listening to be more empathetic is a new skill every leader needs to learn. Knowing when to stop adding too much value and refraining from suggestions on execution of an idea as this may lead to the reduction of employees’ enthusiasm and commitment. Also, as data analysis provides more accurate insights, digital leaders will have to rely more heavily on it and let it do the talk instead of jumping to conclusions themselves.


    Being mindful of millennials

    Digital leaders should acknowledge the emergence of new talent clusters and different expectations among their employees. It's mainly brought by millennials entering the workforce (according to IBM, it's expected that by 2020 they will comprise 50% of the active workforce) and their expectations of the role of leader are changing and they want to be coached rather than managed. To be inspired, trusted and motivated, they perceive leadership as a collective process. Well developed social skills and ability to connect fits well with the changing nature of work where many organisations experiment with a completely flat organisational structure. That's why millennials incline to work more collaboratively (including team-leader relationship) and are confused while faced with command-and-control management.


    Embracing risks

    Innovation is one of the greatest traits that cannot be missed out in the digital world. At the same time, it is well-known that  innovation and any attempts to try  something new can bring potential risks to the organisation. The role of a  digital leader is to manage expectations and encourage employees to take those risks. But it’s not just leaders personality that shapes the organisation's risk attitude; it’s actually the organisational culture with its values, behaviours and beliefs.

    Having clearly defined set of guiding principles and behaviours towards risk taking seems to be integral part of every digital company. Let's take Google as an example. The fact that we were successful at creating a friendly and relaxing workplace enhances employees motivation and creativity. But also, enhances our ability to detect risks, and most notably encourages us to report them and creatively address them.


    Navigating VUCA vortex

    VUCA is an old concept and it stands for:

    • Volatility: the pace of change is accelerating, change is unpredictable in its direction, speed, volume and magnitude
    • Uncertainty: un-modelled risk
    • Complexity: multiplicity, diversity, interconnectedness (there is a need to model the problems in a digital world)
    • Ambiguity: haziness

    How do we build an ecosystem where leaders feel comfortable navigating VUCA vortex? Emergent leaders need to know how to manage ambiguity and anticipate complexities that will impact their businesses and industries they operate in. At the same time, many CIOs are (and will be) challenged with the need to make their IT teams more modern and agile as well as to equip their teams with new skillsets to swiftly adapt to changing environments.


    Are there any discussions in your organisations around digital leadership and the role that your decision makers will play? I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this topic below in comments. Thanks!