Changing face of leadership: going digital

21 June 2019

by Associate Professor Christopher Vas, MBA Director

  • Leadership
Chris Vas

Associate Professor Christopher Vas

Leadership has lost its way. Many would like to think so, but is this really the case? Or, is it just that technological advancements coupled with the rise of social media and the coming of the digital age has hollowed out traditional leadership styles?

If this holds true, which common sense would suggest, then there is a need for a leadership facelift. That means, starting to go digital. But how prepared are organisations to chart this territory and how many leaders see this as a priority and more importantly, their responsibility?

The 2018 Digital Business Report discussed in the MIT Sloan Management Review suggests that even though developing digital skills within the organisation is seen to be important, 90% of employees still seek various channels to further develop and only a third are satisfied with the organisational programmatic interventions that are put in place.

There is no cheat sheet per se, but the path to digital leadership can start with a five step process. These steps can be adopted at the organisation or individual level if you find yourself managing teams or business units.

1. Build a digital pilot: Often in organisations the path of least resistance to implementing change means maintaining status quo. Has that ever led to the change that was envisioned? While the bureaucratic processes for initiating ideas or seeking approvals may be typical in large organisations, this is where fast moving, creative start-ups are taking advantage and making in-roads in capturing market attention. To build a digital pilot, start small. Disaggregate the life cycle or process map into smaller components and identify which parts of the process are routine and repetitive. This is the low hanging fruit for a digital pilot. The nature of a pilot initiative also means that you can fail fast and fail poor without having expended too much time or resources. On the flip side, if the pilot can demonstrate success in a short period of time you not only have a recipe for future digital interventions but you would have also learned what the components of a larger digital plan or strategy could look like. We’ll discuss this later.

2. Activate a small team: You have heard the saying, “if you want to travel fast go solo, but if you want to travel further then team up”. The essence of building a digital pilot or prototype is to not only go fast but also further. The intent is to chart a new territory within the organisation. So, without having to convince
everyone, just yet, of the merits of the digital intervention, get together a group of the “willing coalition”. This can comprise of three to four champions who have the capabilities needed but more importantly the discipline to stay the journey. Be sure to explicitly designate one of the team as the one who plays the role of the devil’s advocate. This is necessary to avoid the classic group think approach to problem solving.

3. Train the team: Now that a team is in place, it is important to establish a level playing field. Ensuring the capability exists amongst the team is critical and it may be the case that individuals need to be trained or upskilled. There are myriad channels available digitally from education platforms such as Coursera and edX to bite-size technology training programmes that individuals or teams can participate in. Ideally, if the team as a whole participates in a Design Thinking or Innovation Lab programme, the experience, time-to-prototype and associated rewards are likely to be compounded.

4. Communicate and tell the story: This is often the missing piece in organisations. The lived experience of change processes is seldom communicated let alone telling the innovation story. Maximum learning or change emerges only when individuals are at the cusp of experiencing discomfort in their established mental models. It is also quite common for success to breed success and thus the experience of the building and executing a digital pilot intervention must be communicated across the organisation.

5. Initiate a digital transformation strategy: With the rapid prototype implementation underway, by now, you or the organisation is starting to take stock of the experience – failure or success. Never mind the outcome, five aspects will be evident by now which are needed to put in place an organisation wide digital strategy:

  1. People skills and capabilities (current and gaps)
  2. Areas for digital intervention
  3. Technologies (and other resources) needed
  4. Impact on the customer or internal user experience
  5. Organisational leadership and the extent to which this must drive cultural change.


Now with the essential ingredients being put in place and good enough war stories to be told through the lived experience of building and executing the pilot initiative, it’s time to scale up.

Source: The Chamber’s Update Magazine 2019

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