Leadership Development in the Digital Age    

Leadership development in the digital age is not just about the actual skills which must be learned, but also about how and when these are developed. Leaders must be able to develop core competencies at the speed at which their organization and industry changes.

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Leaders in the digital age face unprecedented challenges and opportunities. The modern workforce has become accustomed to instant gratification and this has had a knock-on effect on the pace required for leaders in business. Constant and continual change has changed our tolerance for risk, meaning leaders are expected to embrace change through a series of quick decisions, resolving any problems as and when they arise.

What this means in turn, as Robert Hamwee outlines in this paper, is that the way leaders are developed, the most desirable skills we now expect from them, and even who is considered to be a leader has changed.

In the digital age, leaders must take full advantage of available technologies, adopting new ways of working and encouraging the same from those around them. They must also make use of the vast amount of data now available to enable much deeper insight into the development needs and preferences of, and motivation triggers for, staff.

The concept of “unlearning”, as discussed in this paper, has never been more important, with introspection an absolute must for today’s leaders. Questioning the status quo is the ethos of the digital age and in order to survive and thrive, leaders must be willing and able to challenge and change their own behaviors, methods and ways of thinking and – importantly – inspire others to do the same.

Inspiring others has perhaps always been a responsibility of leaders, but again, the concept of this is also changing. Today’s workforce want to be associated with an organization that has a purpose - one, which surfs the waves of technological change, rather than waiting for them to come to shore. In the digital age, leaders must be able to encourage and develop leadership traits in junior employees and not feel threatened – the old adage that one should never be the smartest person in the room has never been more true. Sharing skills and learning from those around us is more possible than ever thanks to new technology. Participation in this learning ecosystem should not decrease as a person moves up in an organization.

The one constant that remains as we move through the digital age is that it is still people that power organizations. It is unlikely – whatever the headlines
or sci-fi fans may say – that leaders will be managing a workforce made entirely of automatons. So while organizations must be “tech-first” they must also be “people-first”. This may seem like a paradox, but if the right technology is deployed in the right way, it can empower workers. It is the responsibility of the leader to ensure that digital innovations are true enablers, not an extra burden or untapped resource.

At Hemsley Fraser, we have been developing leaders for more than 25 years and have seen the required traits and needs change first-hand, and on an individual level, as a leader, I have felt those changes. In recognizing and observing these developments, it’s important that we too – as people who help leaders evolve– continue to deliver relevant support in the right way, and at the right time. That’s why we’re proud to support this paper and ongoing research into leadership development in the digital age and beyond.


A change like we've never experienced before

Change is afoot. Industry disruption caused by digital advances can be felt across almost every sector, and now organizations face the undeniable need to embrace digital transformation as a core part of their strategy. The pace at which this change is taking place coupled with the potential exponential growth of new technologies means that most companies face a shrinking window in which to act. Leaders have to be at the forefront of this transformation, endorsing, encouraging and driving the adoption of new technologies and helping their organizations rid themselves of legacy solutions, products, services – and most of all - thinking. It is no longer a viable option for leaders to detach themselves from this digital transformation in favour of focusing on ‘the big picture’. The ‘big picture’ is a digital picture and people are central to this evolution.


So what does this mean to you as a leader?

Mark Raskino and Graham Waller, authors of ‘Digital to the Core’ say that to survive in this fast-changing digital world, nearly every enterprise must remake itself into a technology company. If they fail to seize the opportunities in their relevant field, someone else will. They go on to highlight three disruptive forces that are driving this wave of change:

Resolution revolution” – Technology enables measuring what happens in the physical and digital realms in ever-greater detail. Insights, and drawing the right conclusions, from this data can increase your control over what happens in your market, and its results.

“Compound uncertainty” – Rapid change can undermine many leaders’ bedrock beliefs and practices. This creates uncertainty in “technology, culture and regulation.”

“Boundary blurring” – The blending of the physical and digital worlds transforms products and services. This obscures the boundaries between industries and remakes competitive landscapes.


One fundamental learning principle

If we are to behave in a more digitally-minded way in our operation, it stands to reason that we should also be learning more digitally. Many organizations have been eager to embrace digital learning and innovations in this arena are constantly developing. From the big and bold, such as new applications of virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) able to create immersive learning experiences, to the small and mighty – like “always-on” digital hubs full of engaging and accessible content – digital transformation within L&D has the power to transform not just how we learn but what we consider to be learning.


Your 'learning baggage' and the power of unlearning

Digital transformation has already triggered a lot of disruption within L&D, and the pace of change continues to hurtle forwards. Just a few years ago, organizations were considering their digital learning options at annual reviews, now change is so persistent that it cannot wait to be decided on once yearly. As businesses begin to think about L&D as a continuous journey, they should also consider the implementation of learning strategies to be a fluid process. Where there was a tendency to think about “digital transformation” as one big, all-encompassing step, now organizations are thinking about several steps along an ongoing path.


Leading is as simple as ABC

The concept of an ABC leader is one that embraces three key attitudes that leaders in an increasingly digital environment would benefit from adopting.

  • Adaptable - It’s about building your flexibility, humanity and resilience and the way we address challenges.
  • Bold - This is the ‘why not?’ of leadership. It’s about being creative and encouraging healthy conflict to create new dimensions of performance.
  • Curious - This is about looking beyond the obvious, it’s about seeking diverse views, about unlearning, relearning and considering every possibility.


Here today, there tomorrow who am I leading?

There has been much discussion on the changing nature of the workforce and the delivering expectations and requirements of Gen Z, millennials and Gen Y, but there is one key factor which determines these differences: whether or not an individual has grown up as a digital native. Younger millennials and most of those in Gen Z will have grown up with the instant gratification that technology provides and as a result expect the organizations they work with to adapt to change much more quickly. Already, this is bringing with it a new relationship with work in what is known as the ‘gig economy’, resulting in rapidly changing workforces as people opt for more flexible options. According to McKinsey, digitization is not only changing work within organizations but also enabling it to break out beyond them. Their latest research indicates that about 25 per cent of the people who hold traditional jobs would prefer to be independent workers, with greater autonomy and control over their hours. Digitization makes the switch to skill-based self-employment or even to hybrid employment (combining traditional and independent work) much easier.


Don't lead me... inspire me.

The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that the average American is exposed to about one hundred thousand words per day (a combination of written and verbal). Assuming similar volumes for those in most developing economies, this is a huge amount of information to distil and process. This should send a message to leaders that communicating in a succinct and persuasive manner is no longer a matter of personal choice but an imperative that effective leaders must command. Effective presentations are no longer fulfilled by endless slides which leave listeners with little or no memorable messages and no more than a transitory experience. Persuasion and storytelling are skills that the most successful communicators seem to master almost effortlessly, although there is ample evidence of the hours they spend perfecting these. People are not influenced by what you tell them, they are influenced by what they hear and this is at the heart of great communication skills; it’s no longer about data that is readily found online but about crafting a compelling story and creating emotionally charged events to engage employees, stakeholders, partners, customers, consumers and so forth. When we think of storytelling or effective presentations we do not necessarily have to emulate or aspire to be the next Steve Jobs; not everybody has the large TED-like audience presentation skills, the aplomb - or indeed the confidence - to do so, but inspiring others is not always a large-scale endeavour. Some people are natural public speakers, others are fluent in silence, and that is the richness of a diverse workforce. Regular messages, updates or touchpoints with your workforce are routine, but demands equal if not greater diligence. A short inspirational video can have a tremendously high impact and these do not require studio quality, there is technology at hand to produce them in-house. However, the skill lies in delivering a message that is concise and powerful and many organizations are turning to this medium to deliver messages that would have been, at best, partially read or, at worst, ignored.