Digital leadership for business success

22nd August, 2016

Technology is fundamentally changing business models, how work is performed and managed, and the kind of skills needed in the workplace.

It’s also changing the expectations we have of business owners and managers—traditional leadership skills and models are no longer enough to foster market-leading innovation.

But what if you’re not technologically-savvy? What technical skills and knowledge of digital trends do you actually need, not only to survive digital disruption, but to make sure your team thrives?

Understanding the gravity of the situation

A survey of Australian SMEs run by the Slade Group (no longer available online) revealed many businesses are struggling to recruit the digital talent they need.

Alarmingly, survey participants said 40 percent of senior managers in their business only had a moderate understanding of the importance of digital skill sets, with 20 percent having little understanding.

While having team members with specialist digital skills may be important, almost every career now requires digital literacy. The most successful companies integrate technology seamlessly into all facets of business.

Leaders that can’t or won’t embrace technology risk becoming obsolete, or may lose the ability to effectively guide, motivate, and evaluate employees with digital expertise.

How can you hit your digital stride?

In an article published on Chief Executive online, business consultant Ted Bililies noted that “a company can’t hit its full digital stride until its senior management embraces the transformation on a personal level”.

He suggests a range of approaches to transforming yourself into a digital expert, including being honest about your knowledge gaps and potentially using reverse-mentoring to learn from employees with specialist digital skills.

Leadership coach Peter Black from ALCHEMY Career Management, who specialises in helping people transform their careers, says self-awareness, self-directed learning, and a hunger to remain relevant are essential.

“The fundamental message is that it’s not going to be delivered on a plate to you,” says Peter. “Resilience, agility and managing complexity are part and parcel of your day-to-day job: you’re going to have to be adaptable.

“Leaders need to be across social media, cloud technologies, collaborative working, mobile apps and big data. You need to have the technical skills to go with the people skills, so you can understand how things work and how people are collaborating and communicating.”

Peter believes some leaders dismiss social media and online collaboration or productivity tools because they haven’t tried them, and would prefer to rely on skills of the past.

“They’re ignoring the trends happening in the workforce and consumer base, which means they’re potentially isolating themselves from a big part of their market,” he says. “There are fundamental changes happening in the way people are engaging with organisations.”

Peter’s insight is based on personal experience: he cultivated a deep knowledge of technology and established a social media presence to reinvent himself as a consultant after he was made redundant in 2005.

“A lot of people want to hang their hat on their experience without realising that their skills have become redundant. You need to ask how you can differentiate yourself by having technical and digital skills.”

Pair new tools with new management approaches

Regional Director at GE Oil & Gas, Mary Hackett, said she was “blissfully unaware of my obligation to lead digital” when she took on the role.

While she’s an experienced engineer in the oil and gas industry, and has been awarded for her approach to business strategy and improving gender balance, Hackett admits that technology was not her “gig”.

When she became aware of how rapidly technology was changing the work of GE, Hackett made it her business to become digitally competent and embrace digital tools to manage and develop her large team.

“I’ve paid a lot of attention to using up-to-date approaches such as webinars, digital training and online collaboration tools.”

She says it’s important that your management style aligns with the tools, and that you don’t resist chances for open discussion and learning from employees—the power of physical presence remains essential.

“The tools make it easier for people across the organisation to challenge ideas. I’ve never had a digital information session that isn’t filled with questions – the organisation is hungry to learn and apply new ways.”

You can’t undo change, but you can adapt

Digital fluency and the ability to continually innovate could make or break your business. The people in the driver’s seat need a strong grasp of disruptive technologies and how they can be leveraged.

In a business landscape where technology drives growth, your curiosity, competence and sustained effort to understand and apply technology will set you apart as a leader.