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15 Digital Leadership Skills of Successful Digital Leaders

Rewind 15 years and HR’s role in business was far from set; the profession was looking to position itself on the executive team but was still shaking off its “hire ...

15 Digital Leadership Skills of Successful Digital Leaders

Rewind 15 years and HR’s role in business was far from set; the profession was looking to position itself on the executive team but was still shaking off its “hire and fire” image. HR had certainly helped the transactional wheels of business turn but did not add much value in terms of strategic workforce planning, future forecasting or data-driven decision-making.

Leaping forward into 2018, things have certainly changed. Empowered by the insights gleaned from people data, HR can now take the lead on advising the business on the human element of any significant business change – whether it’s launching a new product or service, expanding overseas, undertaking a merger or acquisition, or downsizing.

And of course, there’s the role HR plays today in helping the workplace navigate through the digital age. For HR to take a leadership role in this age, a new set of skills is required. Digital leadership lay the groundwork for digital transformation. They must be able to engage and communicate with key stakeholders (both internal and external) in deciding, designing and delivering the digital organisation.

Digital leaders need to outline the costs, benefits, and how to mitigate the risks of digital transformation, and decide on the types of change management interventions that are needed to guide the organisation along the journey.

Sounds daunting.

Sure enough, today only 5% of companies feel they have strong digital leadership in place, according to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends survey. Different research from Capgemini[1] indicates that despite the huge investments being made in digital transformation projects, which is set to exceed $2 trillion by 2021, organisations feel less equipped with the right leadership capabilities than they were 6 years ago (45% in 2012 compared to 35% in 2018).

Of course, HR themselves can be digital leaders, but they also need to be able to identify digital leaders elsewhere in their organisation, and provide them with the appropriate tools, skills and support.

A digital leadership role requires skills and knowledge in areas such as digital strategy, data analytics, technology innovation, and effective communication. Deloitte[2] gathered information from organisations that have successfully undertaken digital transformations.

Here are the essentials required:

  • A comprehensive understanding of the digital market
  • A visionary mindset to develop solutions to potential disruption
  • A champion mentality to promote and gain buy-in for digital initiatives
  • Financial acumen to quantify value and return on investment
  • Business savvy to manage the push and pull tension between cross-functional teams
  • Management capacity to effectively operate the digital team
  • An entrepreneurial spirit to continuously innovate products and manage the product or service lifecycle and the user experience

To thrive in this era, individuals need leadership qualities such as adaptability, strategic thinking, effective communication, and collaborative problem-solving. Surprisingly, despite the digital age being unchartered waters for many people, there is significant overlap with traditional leadership qualities as defined by business gurus such as Ken Blanchard and Stephen Covey.

These leadership qualities include:

  • Adaptability: Essential for innovation, flexibility allows individual styles and work preferences. Adaptability ensures freedom, fostering a conducive environment.
  • Tolerance: The digital future shimmers with possibility, but its path is ever-shifting. We must celebrate experimentation, nurture bold ideas, and even welcome missteps as stepping stones to a brighter tomorrow.
  • Mobility: Champion the use of digital tools and media, and enable flexible and contingent working hours
  • Leadership at all levels: Digital leaders should provide a degree of direction to employees and remove barriers to progress
  • Collaboration: Working across borders, departments and organisations (even the competition) is increasingly critical. Digital leaders should be able to bring together different parties and people to leverage varied and diverse skill sets for collaboration and problem solving
  • Decision-making: The key is to make quick, data-based decisions, and to develop the right team to provide key insights as required. On occasion, they should be able to make decisions based on limited or incomplete data
  • Communication: Digital leaders are highly visible and accessible. They communicate frequently with colleagues across grades and levels using a variety of channels
  • Feedback: Digital leaders provide real-time feedback and reward individual and team achievements

There’s one final quality shared between “old school” leaders and digital leaders: the ability to be a visionary. Technology is rapidly changing; it’s dynamic and it can be overwhelming. How can one be a visionary in such a world? A digital leader must gaze into the future, seeing how today’s choices ripple into the organization’s distant horizon. Just as critically, the digital leader must have a vision in order to inspire others. Great storytelling is an essential tool. Emotion-rich narratives don’t just spark inspiration, they breathe life into abstract ideas.

Leaders need these traits to win early adopters and allow skeptics time to adjust and embrace digital era changes.


[1]Understanding digital mastery today: Why companies are struggling with their digital transformations”, Capgemini Digital Transformation Institute research paper

[2]The changing role of people management in the digital age”, Deloitte research paper