5 Rules For Being A Forward-Thinking Leader In The Digital Age

Don't get left behind.


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Last updated: September 18th, 2023

how to be a great leader

Last updated: September 18th, 2023

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Is Australia is falling behind when it comes to readiness for the digital economy? Well, Harvard Business Review’s Digital Evolution Index (DEI) labels Australia as a “stall out” nation, “slowly receding” in terms of our ability to evolve competitively within the digital landscape:

australia in digital age

According to this index, at least, we’re not keeping pace with the rest of the world. Rather, we’re floundering on the international stage.

Why is this happening?

Well, it’s not for lack of recognition of the importance of digital, with Capgemini research finding that 87% of surveyed company leaders feeling that digital transformation offers a significant competitive advantage.

The problem occurs in the gap between leaders who acknowledge it, and leaders who confidently take advantage of it.

While leaders of some Australian companies – for example, Xero and Freelancer.com – are punching well above their weight when it comes to leveraging the digital era, they’re outliers.

The question is, what makes them different? What do they know that other leaders don’t?

As you continue to face uncertainty and change in the face of the digital age, here are five things you should consider in order to lead your organisation effectively through the trials and tribulations of this period.

1. Embrace The Digital Learning Curve.

The foundation of strong leadership in the digital age begins with an examination of a leader’s own limitations.

With digital able to penetrate and disrupt (I avoid using this clapped-out word, but here it seems strangely fitting) every part of an organisation, leaders must be able to speak the language of digital, regardless of seniority or area of expertise.

Technology is no longer the sole domain of the CIO or the IT department; executives and managers of all backgrounds need to invest in their own personal digital development. As Harvard Business Review observes:

“Leaders across the business must learn about and stay abreast of digital trends, the implications of those trends for their business, and how to leverage the new technologies. That doesn’t mean they have to know how the technology works, but rather why it’s important and how to use it.”

Practically speaking, it means setting aside time to stay close to important information sources, following top influences who wrestle with digital leadership issues and following blogs (such as this one), which put digital leadership issues under the microscope.

(Related: How To Improve Team Performance And Cohesion).

2. Be Agile.

One of the reasons smaller companies are able to steal market share from large, established enterprises in the digital age is the agility inherent in their structure.

Innovation requires agility, and in many cases large organisations rely on systems that are lethargic at their core.

Don Schuerman, CTO of PegaSystems, is vocal about the need for systems change to enable digital transformation.

Recognising that large businesses are often unable or unwilling to implement wholesale systems changes, Schuerman recommends a compromise, whereby “instead of rebooting the entire enterprise […] “businesses spin-off small portions with a focus on innovation”.

Leaders can bear this well in mind, focussing on building an agile business that allows different divisions to operate as an “in-house start-up” of sorts.

(Related Article: How World-Class Executives Facilitate Employee Engagement).

3. Drive Cultural Change.

Systems and structures aside, often the real culprit stalling digital transformation is cultural.

Indeed, Altimeter found that 43% of executives surveyed highlighted changing company culture as a critical part of their digital transformation efforts.

As Schuerman aptly notes, “It’s not as much technology as it is getting individuals to shift their thinking. […] You’ve got to build an environment within this organisation that is free, and has enough authority to be able to launch new business processes”.

Innovation requires a shift in mentality, creating and championing a culture in which people feel free to innovate.

It’s about overcoming a risk-averse mentality – what our newly appointed Assistant Minister for Innovation Wyatt Roy calls Australia’s “biggest challenge”, noting that successful innovation must come hand in hand with an aspirational mind-set; with the belief that it’s okay to fail.

For leaders, driving this cultural change will rest on strength of vision, exceptional communication skills and an inclusive leadership style. It will call for cooperation, not just compliance.

4. Broaden Your Leadership Style.

Digital transformation might need exceptional leaders, but it also needs company wide-buy-in.

As companies become increasingly generationally and culturally diverse, then, leaders must broaden their leadership style to secure this buy-in, ensuring they can communicate in an empathetic and meaningful way to drive employee performance.

Where once the “Autocratic Commander’, as Knowledge@Wharton put it, was enough, leaders in the digital age must embrace an amalgamation of the four leadership styles: Co-Creator, Collaborator, Communicator and Commander.

(Related Article: Transformational vs Transactional Leadership).

5. Invest In Training.

According to Capgemini, over 90% of companies consider missing digital skills a key challenge in successful digital transformation, yet at the same time, only 46% of companies are proactively investing in digital skills development.

We’re seeing huge digital talent shortages – and yet business-wide training is often insufficient.

Indeed, only 4% of businesses proactively align their training with their digital requirements.

According to Capgemini, digital leaders should focus on ways of filling this digital skills gap if hoping to position their business competitively.

Innovative recruitment tools, strategic acquisitions and partnerships, innovative employee exchange programs – these are all fertile grounds for increasing digital skills.

One major way that leaders can easily address digital skills shortages is to promote IT and wider-business collaboration, improving education flow from IT leaders.

Empowerment is a real issue to focus on. Harvard Business Review conducted a survey into interdivisional IT education and found that 45% of respondents identified the lack of a suitable learning forum as the biggest barrier to learning about new technology from IT leaders.

The second biggest barrier was time constraints, at 34%, followed by inadequate communication skills at 28%.

Their conclusion was simple – leaders should create suitable structures and processes to facilitate learning while offering IT leaders broader teaching and leadership training.

– Irene

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