The 11 Top Skills of Successful Digital Leaders

Digitalization does not make managers redundant.

On the contrary, it’s employees who determine a company’s success or lack thereof.

However, it is true that the role of leadership has changed in recent years. Certain leadership tasks are fundamentally different than they were twenty years ago. Others have stayed the same, and have indeed become more important in today’s world.

In today’s technologized world, we need leaders who understand the landscape and can stay ahead of the curve. We need digital leaders.

But what does digital leadership mean? And what traits set true digital executives apart?

What Does Digital Leadership Mean?

Digital leadership is a scientific approach to define the tasks and tools of corporate executives in the era of digitalization, especially in the phase of transformation to a digitized economy. Digitization of processes, networking between people and machines and among machines (the Internet of Things), and autonomous systems (artificial intelligence) are megatrends that revolutionize traditional businesses.

These trends have radically changed the world of work. New technological developments give employees significantly more autonomy and flexibility. You can now work from anywhere, anytime you want, and you have the power to organize tasks yourself.

Simple tasks are the purview of machines now, and companies increasingly rely on highly qualified specialists who have high demands of their workplaces and require a certain caliber of general working conditions.

In addition, companies need to work flexibly and adjust to constantly changing market conditions in order to remain competitive.

Modern managers and executives must adapt their style, methods, and understanding of roles as a whole in response to these changes.

In a nutshell, digital leadership summarizes concepts and approaches that are understood today as “good leadership”.

Are Digital Leaders Necessary?

Short answer: yes!

The methods and tools that work best for us change over time. People’s basic needs, however – the things that make us tick – have remained the same since the beginning of humankind.

Employees want to be valued, do meaningful work, and keep moving forward professionally and personally.

They also want job security and direction in their careers.

People follow people.

Leaders, therefore, have to provide impulses and ideas. They motivate, bring teams closer together, resolve conflicts, and support employees individually.

Innovation and creativity must come from people. Technology supports great ideas — it doesn’t invent them.

Thus, the more technologically advanced the working world gets, the more important managers with emotional intelligence, values, and vision become.

Software and humanoid robots can’t fulfill the role of a good executive – only a human leader can!

What are the features of a digital leader?

The Digital Leader Must Know How to…

1. Provide Orientation

Leaders in the digital age have empathy and strong social skills to help them give employees support and orientation.

Job security is a central need, even among millennials. Although people do change careers more often than they used to, long-term jobs at large companies remain popular.

Digitalization has accelerated the world of work. New trends and technologies now revolutionize entire industries not in decades but in years.

Employees are left wondering whether their jobs and even companies will exist tomorrow, what changes they should expect in their workplaces, and whether they can keep up with increased demands.

Digital leaders recognize such fears and manage them, setting a path for everyone to follow and creating a safe and supportive environment in which employees can work to their strengths.

2. Espouse Good Values

In a German survey called “What is Good Work?”, 73% of respondents reported that they wanted to do meaningful work. For the vast majority of people, contributing to a good cause and making a difference are stronger incentives than any salary bonus.

Few companies directly save the world (or small kittens). Nevertheless, all companies need common beliefs, values, and visions that motivate their employees.

Why am I doing what I’m doing? What is our common goal? What values are we as a company committed to?

These questions are difficult to answer in the tech world, where everyone’s staring at screens from dawn until dusk or working in remote locations scattered across the world.

Executives hopefully carry the values and visions anchored in their corporate philosophy, relaying those motivators to their teams and demonstrating every day what it means to put them into practice.

Digital leaders know their “why” and helps each employee find their own “why”.

3. Delegate responsibilities

In agile digital work environments, managers don’t have as much control as they traditionally would.

In a SCRUM team, for example, there’s no traditional manager at all.

As employees gain autonomy, they demand more of it. They work wherever and whenever they want, they organize themselves into teams, they decide independently on the best course of action. Meanwhile, companies must react quickly to market changes and trends.

In response, centralized decision-making processes slow down.

Instead of following a chain of command and micromanaging employees, digital leaders rely on leadership at eye level.

Digital executives delegate responsibility to their teams and grant freedom without giving up their leadership roles. They lead by laying out clear objectives, not by exerting pressure and control over their employees.

4. Coach and Moderate

If teams can handle most responsibilities independently, then what role do leaders have?

The digital leader is a life coach, a team builder, a moderator, a mediator, and a career consultant.

As traditional, face-to-face office communities become rarer, managers become more important as the people who hold their teams together.

Remote and distributed teams work on projects in nontraditional, constantly changing setups. How can one engender a feeling of belonging under such conditions?

Digital executives pay attention to each employee’s challenges and needs, supporting and encouraging each one individually.

The digital leader promotes exchanges of ideas and expertise among team members, and they work to actively involve employees who work remotely.

They anticipate the potential for conflict within a team, devising solutions for problems as soon as they arise.

5. Communicate Personally

We use a whole range of methods to communicate every single day: we write emails, chat, assign tickets, and hold video conferences.

It’s fantastic that there are so many modes of communication open to us.

However, digital communications tend to be kind of impersonal.

Digital leaders remedy the lack of personal connections that arises when we interface digitally. They promote meaningful interactions between employees and creates opportunities to build closer relationships with and between employees. Digital leaders are approachable and keep their office door open – literally and metaphorically.

A good manager knows that good communication doesn’t just mean exchanging information – it means building close ties between people. A good manager facilitates conflict resolution and emphasizes the importance of face-to-face interactions.

6. Network Offline

In a world where we’re bombarded by metric tons of spam emails daily, print advertising is having a renaissance. In-person networking is likewise regaining popularity in a world dominated by online interactions.

When the majority of our communications are facilitated by screens, offline interactions gain meaning and significance. Important business deals are made in-person, not over email. Think of political summits – important world leaders take the time to meet in person because they know the value of sitting down, shaking hands, and looking people in the eyes.

This is the analog secret to success in digital industries: networking personally with business partners, important contacts, and other managers – taking the time to get to know people in the flesh.

7. Prioritize

One great thing about the digital world is that you can do pretty much anything anywhere, anytime. However, this freedom to work anytime, anywhere is also the digital world’s downfall.

When your job is always just a keystroke away, it’s easy for the border between work and free time to erode.

The digital leader understands the value of personal time and is able to compartmentalize, prioritize, and manage their time in order to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Leaders in the digital age prioritize management duties and tasks that bring them closer to their main goals, using tools like the Eisenhower matrix to stay focused on what’s actually important and avoid being distracted by whatever’s popping up on their screens.

Leaders have always had to prioritize and manage their time effectively, but given the way that the internet makes us constantly available, these skills have become more important and harder to cultivate.

8. Recognize and Make Use of People’s Strengths

Do you know that old adage, “The boss knows best”?

Well, in the digital age, that sentiment is less true than ever!

Companies now use advanced technologies, and they employ teams of specialists in different fields to work with said technologies. A good team is made up of people with deep, wide-ranging knowledge.

The manager can’t possibly know everything there is to know. In fact, no one can. But that’s okay because being the expert on everything isn’t the manager’s job.

Instead, the leader’s challenge is to accept that they don’t know everything and to trust and value their employees’ expertise rather than maintaining hubris and a false sense of all-knowingness.

The digital leader stays out of technical decisions they don’t understand, instead, making sure that employees with specialized knowledge have the tools they need to succeed in making those calls.

9. Build Media and Technology Skills

The digital leader should be able to delegate technical decisions to skilled employees, but that doesn’t mean that technological understanding is irrelevant for the modern executive.

Leaders in the digital age should be experienced in using software tools and should stay up-to-date on their company’s digital offerings.

They should keep up with trends and try to understand what technical staff is up to.

In order for leaders to be effective, they need to be engaged, in the know, and credible.

10. Develop Employees

New technologies and methodologies are constantly emerging, with each development requiring new skill sets and making old knowledge and systems obsolescent.

Employees no longer train once for a job. Instead, they’re continuously learning – through seminars, in online courses, and on the job.

Digital leaders promote formal and informal learning and encourage employees to exchange knowledge. They also use digital tools for knowledge management.

Additionally, they recognize employees’ potentials and use them to develop individual plans for further training.

Above all, the digital executive is a role model committed to continuous learning.

11. Allow Errors

The most successful companies in digital markets are ones that offer a complete, mature product.

But often those who quickly catch on to new trends and create products to serve emerging markets have newer, still developing business models – they work out the kinks as they go.

Creativity and innovation are impossible without making a few mistakes along the way.

Digital leaders encourage their employees to experiment, to break new ground – and to fail. They establish a constructive feedback culture in which every mistake is an opportunity for growth.

The Digital Leader as a beta model

Despite being empathetic and coaching employees personally, it’s important for a boss to remain a boss. They must make sure that their team is adhering to corporate strategy and that all the numbers add up.

If employees disagree with one another or company goals are put in jeopardy, the manager must step in to steer the ship back on course – but without falling into old hierarchical leadership styles.

The digital leader keeps an eye on the big picture while still taking time to communicate with employees personally and individually.

They inspire employees to embrace new technologies without getting overwhelmed by possible digital futures.

Of course, no one can meet these lofty goals 100% of the time.

How does the digital leader recover from mistakes and stay the course?

They embody the spirit of digitalization and agility! The digital leader is an eternal beta version. They try new things, make mistakes, receive feedback, and continue to optimize and improve.

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