Digital era leadership key focus areas

While digital era leaders must stay ahead of transforming business models, it’s equally important to know what drives, aligns and motivates teams and individuals.
Read time 7min 20sec

2020 will go down in history as the year when people across the globe had to unite to play their part in combating the spread of COVID-19. The year has proven we live in a highly-complex, uncertain, interconnected and ever-changing world.

In this dynamic world, individuals and businesses are either disrupting or are being disrupted by prevailing megatrends. The economic, political and social disruption caused by the pandemic has been devastating, and dealing with the unforeseen challenges caused by the pandemic has taken a significant toll on people across the world.

The pandemic has and will continue to impact our lives, our careers and how we do things, in a major way. Many commentators have labelled COVID-19 as the biggest driver or accelerator of digital transformation for individuals, societies, industries and organisations.

These waves of digital transformation are affecting entire business models and at times creating new industries and business models. This has transformed our communication, ways of working, shopping and many other facets of our lives.

The pandemic has seen more businesses rapidly adopting digital solutions in order to survive and thrive during this difficult trading period. Unfortunately, some businesses haven’t survived and many people have lost their jobs. Those who have embraced technology seem to be navigating this difficult period better and are likely to future-proof their businesses.

The world as we know it is changing at a rapid rate. The impact of prevailing megatrends and advances in digital technology are reshaping the workplace and placing a new set of demands on leaders.

One major change brought by the pandemic and enabled by technology is teams working remotely. With teams not meeting in person, it is critical for leaders to find new ways of keeping teams engaged, motivated and connected while keeping safe from the pandemic. In an effort to prepare leaders for dealing with the new ways of working and business models, organisations have to revamp their leadership philosophies and programmes to produce digital era leaders. These should be people-focused, which feels almost unnatural in the digital environment.

While digital era leaders are expected to stay ahead of the competitive and/or transforming business models by understanding their industries, prevailing megatrends, stakeholders’ expectations, internal capabilities and the impact of digital technology, it is equally important to comprehend what drives, aligns and motivates teams and individuals.

The impact of prevailing megatrends and advances in digital technology are reshaping the workplace and placing a new set of demands on leaders.

Without the people focus, the other areas are almost impossible to achieve and this became more challenging for leaders with the introduction of remote working. People need to be led; however, not in the way they were led in the past. Leaders should lead their teams with clarity and purpose, and should focus on the following key areas:

Crafting a compelling vision for the team

Jeff Bezos, outgoing CEO of Amazon, wrote a letter to his shareholders in 1997, and over the years, he has written more letters annually to his shareholders, detailing the company’s plans, failures and achievements. These letters have created a very clear and compelling vision for the Amazon business and we all know its success story.

Bezos is a leader with a well-articulated vision supported by a well-structured execution plan. Along the way, there were many setbacks; however, Bezos and his team stayed on course to deliver their vision. In order to keep the vision alive, he consistently and continuously shared the vision to create collective focus. Without a clear vision, Amazon couldn’t have achieved the success it enjoys today.

Attracting, developing and retaining top talent

Reed Hastings, Netflix co-founder and CEO, in his book “No Rule Rules”, talks about a fast and innovative workplace being made up of “stunning colleagues”. These are highly-talented people, of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. They are creative, accomplish a significant amount of important work and collaborate effectively.

As a leader, it is critical to be a talent magnet and attract stunning colleagues. This should involve developing and preparing the team for current and future roles. When recruiting, it’s critical to look for both role and culture alignment from potential employees. This will ensure the new members not only know how to do the job but can also fit-in with the team.

It is also important to have the courage and discipline to deal with poor performance in order to maintain extreme high-performance. Dealing with performance issues should be done fairly, consistently and respectfully.

Remote teams are going to require new strategies for keeping individuals and teams engaged, motivated, connected and together. Teams will require well-articulated plans and goals, and each individual should be clear about their role and responsibilities.

The role of coaching and mentoring becomes more relevant in ensuring individual brilliance always enables overall team success.

It is important to foster a culture which enables the team to work effectively, irrespective of location. Leadership needs to focus more on output of individuals and teams, as opposed to the traditional management of work schedules and controlling activities.

Building and sustaining a winning culture

Leaders like Bezos and Hastings have mastered the skill of creating winning cultures for their organisations. Bezos believes in encouraging successful failures, meaning Amazon had to build experimentation into its business model.

With experimentation, there is a high degree of failure and most organisations have not mastered dealing with failure. Often failure brings out the worst in people. To sustain this winning culture, the organisation has to review its control processes in order to build an enabling environment for inculcating the culture.

These controls include policies, approval procedures and management oversight. Netflix also introduced a culture of candour, in which members of the team could give each other candid feedback and challenge authority.

This was supported by a structured change intervention to ensure employees and managers felt safe to give feedback, responding to all criticism with gratitude and providing belonging cues.

To inculcate a winning culture in an organisation, it is critical to have solid foundations and trust should be in place before embarking on this initiative. Trust allows for and encourages healthy, safe conflict and is the foundation of high-performing teams.

Increasing trust

Trust impacts our daily lives and interactions with others. Our trust levels have been impacted differently by many factors in our lives and a team will bring some of these experiences. It is the leader’s role to ensure there is high trust in the organisation.

Stephen M R Cover, in his book “The Speed of Trust”, helps us understand trust in a simple way. When we trust people, we believe in them, their integrity and their ability. As leaders, it is critical to build trust and maintain it. In order to do so, we need to have integrity; our intent should always be for the greater good of the team; we need to have requisite capabilities to fulfil our roles; and lastly, we need to deliver results.

Great leaders understand trust is essential in all relationships, and that while it takes time and effort to establish, it can take moments to dissipate.

Personal mastery

Steven Shallenberger, author and founder of “Becoming your best: 12 principles of highly effective leaders”, makes it clear that in order to lead a business or a team, you must find clarity and direction in your own life. Strong leaders have a clear vision and well-devised strategy for both their organisation unit as well as for themselves personally.

Strong leaders’ sustainability lies in their ability to invest time and energy into all aspects of their life, finding balance, creating and maintaining relationships, and developing themselves, in line with their personal vision. Once the leaders’ foundation is strong – they have the capacity to move others to new heights and sustain superior performance over time.

“Go out and lead the world; but never forget to begin by leading yourself first at home. You can’t lead the environment if you can’t lead yourself in it.” − Israelmore Ayivor.

Antony Hlungwane

Founder of Futurecentric Group

Antony Hlungwane is founder of Futurecentric Group, chairperson of Future Ingenium and CEO of The Unplugg Group. He was previously group IT director at Mr Price Group (a leading South African value fashion retailer) and chief technology officer for Hollard Insurance (a financial services provider). He also served on the boards of Gibb Engineering, SABS and UNISA as board advisor.

He is a passionate leader and an experienced executive with highly-developed interpersonal skills and the passion to develop compelling visions for the teams he leads. Hlungwane is able to push performance improvements, while at the same time delivering business value.

In 2013, he was a finalist (Top 5) in the annual Visionary CIO Award and in 2015 he was in the Top 10. The award recognises IT leaders who demonstrate visionary leadership in using IT to support, grow and transform business. Furthermore, it recognises IT leaders who have established best practice in implementing technology solutions in an organisation. He is also a researcher and techpreneur.

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