Future Skills: Understand and optimize digital leaders

In the modern world of work, companies are increasingly aware that they need not only in-depth digital talent but also effective digital leaders who are willing and able to lead employees within digitally complex environments.

Today’s article centers around how organizations can use such digital leaders: how to identify digital talent and once identified, how such leaders may benefit organizations. Our article also focuses on the future skills requirements that organizations are likely to face in the short and medium-term within their leadership talent pool.

What is effective digital leadership?

Effective digital leaders are not required to be skilled technologists or IT professionals. Instead, they are adept at helping their teams and reports to navigate through the challenges of a digital world. Based on recent research on future leadership by TTS’s product partner, Aon Assessment Services, these challenges can be summarized as follows:

  • Technological advancement. The digital working environment is one of constant and rapid technological change. Such advancements may have unexpected, disruptive effects on business operations and as a result, the everyday lives of employees.
  • Increased business complexity. Modern companies are likely to have much faster product development cycles and as a result, will have to partner with more companies and service providers than ever before, often working across national and cultural boundaries.
  • Constant change. Because of the rapid decision-making and execution that digitization affords, leaders will have to be resilient and flexible in the face of this dynamic business environment.

Given the above, effective digital leadership is therefore the capacity of a leader to simplify technological advancement, business complexity, and constant change for their teams.

Broadly speaking, this objective is accomplished through:

  • Encouraging employees to harness technology.
  • Facilitating collaboration and innovation through humility.
  • Acting as agents of change and creating multiplier effects across areas of responsibility.

As a practical example, the effects of Artificial Intelligence, and the concomitant need for a differently skilled workforce in the wake of changes that result from AI, require skilled digital leadership in all the above-mentioned areas:

  • Through encouraging employees to see AI as a business acceleration tool rather than a threat, digital leaders can harness this technology for their organization.
  • By facilitating collaboration between teams, AI experts and the technology itself, such leaders will be in a better position to identify and act upon the innovations that follow.
  • As an agent of change, a skilled digital leader will be able to use the multiplier effects that technologies such as AI bring to the table, without getting stuck in siloed thinking or being overly territorial in protecting their turf.

Before moving on, it is worth noting that the future is likely to hold even more demands on leaders to work with (or around) the need for re-skilled or up-skilled employees. According to research conducted by Aon, by 2025 up to half of the globe’s workforce will need to undergo some form of reskilling. It is within this dynamic and shifting environment that future leaders will have to operate (and thrive) in.

Identification of digital leadership

Based on internationally benchmarked studies of online and digital behavior, Aon has identified three main pillars of successful digital leadership. These are:

  • An agile mindset. Effective digital leaders tend to be more open-minded and learning orientated than their peers, and ae willing to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses. Agility in this context also refers to intellectual curiosity and displaying an overall positive attitude to change.
  • Leading change. In order to succeed in a digital world, leaders need to be interested and motivated to lead others through volatile, potentially disruptive business landscapes. This includes (and is dependent on) a drive to self-development and a willingness to adopt the role of a humble facilitator, rather than a traditional, top-down leader.
  • Driving business. Digital leaders are adept at building business success through global networking, generating innovative solutions and taking calculated risks. This presupposes a finely honed sense of integrity as well as personal resilience in the face of continuous change.

In operationalizing these three pillars of successful digital leadership, Aon has constructed a robust, internationally validated competency framework that organizations can use to identify and develop digital leaders.

This framework comprises 12 measurable competencies that include familiar capacities such as Strategic Solutioning and Mental Endurance but also unique competencies specifically aimed at leading and succeeding in a digital world, such as Digital Communication, Agility, Championing Collaboration, and Handling Data.

For a more detailed description of these competencies, as well as the associated assessments that can be used to measure them, please take a look at our recent article on assessing for digital leadership.

The benefits of effective digital leadership

Once an organization has embarked on the identification (through the use of scientific talent assessments, structured interviews, and assessment centers) of digital leadership potential, the benefits are substantial.

Whether the business in question acquires talent or develops their own from within existing leadership ranks, research conducted on the future leader model by Aon is clear: Having effective digital leaders onboard results in benefits that cut across business functions and go beyond traditional gains made by capable leadership.

As an example of this, Aon has identified that leaders who are high scorers in competencies associated with digital leadership are more likely to be:

  • Rated highly in problem solving,
  • Rated highly in being flexible,
  • High in self-development,
  • Implementing continuous improvements,
  • High in taking ownership of projects and teams, and
  • Developing innovative business opportunities than their less digitally adept peers.

Apart from these benefits, research is also pointing to the capacity of effective digital leadership leading to more accurate identification of key potential disruptors in the business landscape as well as the championing of strategies that will help organizations not only survive but thrive in these situations.

A simple, but accurate summary of the benefit of effective digital leadership is this: Good digital leaders will enable their teams to keep up with technological change and disruption rather than being swamped or immobilized by it.

Final thoughts

Apart from this encouraging research data, it seems clear that the demands of the digital world of work will continue to shape the requirements of leadership. Trends that will shape the future of work and the workforce include technologies such as AI and big data that will continue to disrupt the way work is defined for many.

In such a shifting landscape, effective future leaders will have to evolve alongside not only their own job requirements but that of their teams as well. Here at TTS we are actively involved in researching the practical and theoretical implications of digital readiness and digital leadership for our clients’ future skills requirements.

Initial results show promise. In our project to validate Aon’s core behavioral measure used in the assessment of digital readiness and digital leadership, the ADEPT-15, we have demonstrated the cross-national equivalence of scores for local samples.

And in the near future, we will release data on how this illuminates local participants’ digital leadership potential.

For more on the future leader model as well as the assessment of digital readiness and leadership capacity, why not get in touch with us at info@tts-talent.com?