How to identify and develop digital-savvy leaders

22 May 2018 - 07:00 By Vincent Solomon
Young woman using a digital tablet.
Young woman using a digital tablet.
Image: 123RF/Luca Bertolli.

Constant change managers – this is the skill most required in leadership positions for businesses operating in the age of digital transformation.

Digital transformation has forever changed the landscape of what is required to be a successful leader; it has substantially increased the rate and complexity of change in business operations and processes, presenting a constant flow of obstacles that managers are required to solve, and solve quickly.

Recruitment of personnel that are able to operate in this highly fluctuating work environment is critical to ensure business success. ManpowerGroup South Africa’s managing director, Lyndy van den Barselaar, states that businesses can substantially improve their odds of success by choosing leaders who are distinguished by the four tried-and tested, inherent enablers of effective leadership: brightness, endurance, drive, and agility.

“While digital transformation – and specifically its defining features of Big Data, the Internet of Things, data mining, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and the power of social media – is push-pulling businesses to compete and operate in entirely new ways, the value of traditional leadership enablers remain as important as ever,” says van den Barselaar. “Based on research and our experience working with global enterprises in multiple sectors, we see four personality traits that make up the foundation, or at least 80%, of effective modern leadership.”

Agility: An agile or adaptable leader moves through different disciplines seamlessly. It’s more important than ever because digital leaders are continuous change managers. The digital revolution is redefining how, where, and why work gets done — and what skills are needed. Upskilling and adapting the workforce to this new reality requires nimble leaders who can decouple from convention.

Brightness: Not a product of a formal education, brightness is the ability to quickly consume information and draw conclusions. The pace of disruption is demanding that leaders need to feel situations on-the-fly, and furthermore, modern leaders can’t look to the past for meaningful parallels to guide their decision-making. 

Drive: Drive, or a burning desire to be personally successful, used to be the calling card of the Type A leader. Today’s leaders understand that success is found through collaboration, team building, and motivating the business group or company to achieve a vision. The digital revolution demands large-scale cultural change in the organisation, led by its top executives.

Endurance: Endurance is harnessing intellectual stamina to reach a workable solution. Globalisation, matrixed organisational structures, and greater customer engagement are driving up the number of inputs a leader must process, and being able to deliver against a cloudburst of data points — quickly and confidently — requires exceptional mental strength.

“Eighty per cent of the attributes that have always made leaders effective remain the same, however the other 20 per cent comprises a small set of new leadership behaviours that are essential to lead in these dynamic times,” says van den Barselaar, “These three new leadership skills are coachable, and can be layered in to existing leadership roles, which can have a material impact on the success or stagnation of a business’ digital transformation journey.”

Foster Learnability: Leadership in a knowledge-based organisation requires embracing a paradox: what you know is less important than what you can learn. Effective leadership in the Digital Age demands a particular set of characteristics; continuously learning, curious about technology, and open to fresh and innovative ideas. The acceleration of organisational performance needs the same curiosity in the workforce through opportunities to acquire new skills, reshape existing ones, and diversify into new areas.

Unleash Talent: Digital transformation permeates well beyond machines on the manufacturing floor or in a server room; it delves into all levels and functions within a business. A digitally savvy leader recognises this requirement and works to motivate every team member and align their contributions to achieve success. Leaders who support career development initiatives that are aligned to new digital business models will create a talent-focused workplace culture that attracts the best and brightest.

Dare to Lead: Having the courage to lead is a critical but often under-appreciated skill in turbulent times. As the organisation moves through digital transformation, leaders at all levels should feel empowered to drive the agenda forward. Senior leaders must sanction a culture of measured innovation and reward managers who bring entrepreneurial passion and wise decision-making to the job, day after day.

“Wherever your company is on the digital journey, you can improve your chances of success by choosing leaders who are distinguished by their brightness, endurance, drive, and agility, and who are able to incorporate the skills of fostering learnability, unleashing talent, and daring, to lead into their leadership skillset,” concludes van den Barselaar.