Are you ready to be a digital leader?

By Philippe Riboton, Managing Director at HR Partners International Executive Search

Digital transformation is the buzz word of the moment. Not a business meeting, not a business conference takes place without discussing conducting business in the digital age or conducting digital transformation. But does anybody really wonder what’s the right profile of executives to drive this new model of management? In other words what is digital leadership?

It is no surprise most company leaders admit their businesses are being heavily disrupted by digitization; but it is rather worrying that most admit they don’t have the necessary capabilities in their organization to face the challenge.

One thing is very clear: gone are the days when digital leadership was a space reserved to heads of digital. Digital is now everywhere. Digital is in finance, digital is in sales, digital is in HR and of course digital is in marketing: it’s all over the place. In today’s world all senior leaders need to somehow be digital leaders. According to Vit Subert, co-founder and CEO of UP21 incubator in Prague, “digital leadership is not anymore a special skill but one of the basic and very much needed skills for every manager”.

So what should be common to professionals from all disciplines in order to disrupt current paradigms?

According to Dalibor Sajar, head of digital channels and online distribution at Moneta Bank in the Czech Republic, “digital leaders need to find the difficult balance between mastering customer experience, understanding business goals and solving technological challenges.” In other words, he says “they need to demonstrate a strong ability to communicate in a technological language internally while using simple and engaging language with customers. They need to be rather early adopters than late followers.”

The fascinating thing is that digital leadership challenges everything we knew about management. In today’s global corporate world most organizations are based on matrix structures with decision makers spread across different countries: you may seat in Vienna as regional CFO for Central Europe but your boss may seat in London, your colleague in charge of procurement in Budapest and your colleague in charge of marketing in Prague. Not to mention that some of your supporting teams may seat in a shared service center somewhere in Poland.

They key lesson is: there is no space anymore for good old top down authority. The name of the game is empowerment, the ability to influence others and to cultivate positive relationships (a criteria so dear to millennials – who are obviously heavily represented within the digital population).

As a result the key to drive performance is not to dictate it but to encourage collaboration, to get people connected and engaged across multi-disciplinary teams. It is all about listening to people, brainstorming with them and sharing decisions (rather than having a vision and mobilizing people around it). It’s about being open to new ideas rather than convincing people that your idea is the best one.

It is about being bluntly open to experimentation, take risks – and eventually fail – but try again.

Of course, it requires to be data friendly, to be sensitive to metrics and trends. But it is as much about curiosity, humility, empathy, about being capable of dealing with doubt, of coping with uncertainty, of adaptability – and still making it a constructive journey. It is all about this great buzz word a lot of Fortune 500 companies have adopted as a new company motto: agility.

So my question to you is simple: are you ready to be a digital leader?