Blog Post

What Makes a Successful Digital Leader?


digital leader

You can find hundreds if not thousands of web pages, articles, white papers, and webinars about digital transformation. With good reason too, since digital technology is sweeping across industries, including all sectors of manufacturing.

This raises an important question: What kind of leadership is required to steer an enterprise through these times of change? Or more simply, what makes a good digital leader? After all, if digital technology is transforming business, it’s also transforming business leadership.

While much has been written about the question, there’s not much agreement on the answer. One article says digital leaders need to be “creative, curious, experimental, innovative, collaborative, and have strong interpersonal skills.” Information Age cites seven characteristics, including team-building and a love of technology. Some experts claim there are four key traits, others say there are ten.

I can’t settle the debate, but I do have my own perspective on the question. Instead of listing the qualifications needed, what about starting with what challenges need to be overcome? Those leaders that can effectively address these challenges could then be identified as being leaders. 

Based on industry research and my own experience, here are five challenges that digital leaders face and the qualities I think they’ll need to succeed.

  1. The Pace of Change & Flexibility

If the world seems to be changing faster every year, that’s because it is. Technology is changing everything, from our workplaces to our societies to our governments. Many scientists and futurists see a coming technological singularity, where technology advances accelerate exponentially like a runaway train. It is still to be determined if this outcome will occur, however, digital leaders must be more flexible than ever before. This flexibility must encompass not just a willingness to change, but an actual eagerness to change. Being resolute and staying the course, once the traits of a good leader, are more of a liability than an asset in the digital age. 

  1. Uncertainty & Boldness

With change comes uncertainty. The fact is, no one really knows what technology we’ll be embracing five or ten years from now, or what impact it will have. Who could have predicted the profound influence of the Internet and social media on our lives? Smartphones have upended many aspects of our society in less than a generation. Facing all this uncertainty, digital leaders will have to make bold decisions anyway. Granted, they’ll have more information available to them, thanks to digital technology such as big data and Artificial Intelligence. But they won’t have a crystal ball. Boldness has always been an ingredient to business success, and I expect that it will continue to be so in the coming years.

  1. Business Value & Focus

As everything moves faster and transformation roils industries, the competition out there is tougher than ever. Margins for error are smaller and the cost of mistakes greater. More importantly, it is easy to get caught up in the technology of transformation while neglecting the reason for the investment – to help drive business value, be it to increase efficiency or deliver superior customer satisfaction. After all, the technology decisions being made now will have a big impact on the future profitability of the enterprise in the next few years. Managing this transformation impacts many parts of the business, so maintaining a dedicated focus is paramount.

  1. Complexity & Broad Knowledge

Digital technology is rightly touted for breaking down the traditional silos of operation. But it also puts extra importance on every technology decision. This is not just a technical issue of establishing connectivity or interoperability. Rather, it’s a matter of understanding what each business operation needs, how it interacts with others, and what’s the best course for the enterprise as a whole. This has always been true, but the digital transformation has raised the stakes. A digital leader has to be informed and curious about every aspect of the business and should build a support team to fill any gaps. More than ever, knowledge and access to data is power.

  1. Customer Expectations & An Ear to the Ground

Customers having the final say is nothing new, but before the digital revolution, they had a harder time being heard. That’s sure changed! The same technology that’s changing your enterprise is also transforming the customer experience. This is true whether your customers are personal online shoppers or global procurement officers. There are several dimensions to this challenge, including the experience your technology creates, the data you’re able to collect about your customers and their experience, how well you analyze that data, and most important of all, how effectively you use it. That last part is where digital leaders will earn their pay. Using digital technology to enhance customer interaction is the future of business.

Those are my five challenges and the traits that digital leaders must have to meet them. Whether you agree with this list or not, there’s no doubt that business leadership is being transformed right along with businesses themselves. And while there’s no definitive answer to what makes a good digital leader, one thing is clear: enterprises are rapidly changing. As an article from MIT’s Sloan School of Management states, “Leaders must develop new skills to effectively guide their organizations into this uncertain future.”

The digital future is arriving quickly. Will you be ready to lead the charge?

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