Is #digital impacting leadership?

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February 18th, 2015

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hashtagThe short answer is: yes. But beyond that it is hard to say how. Not because there hasn’t been an impact, rather the debate was over scale, or whether digital brings new challenges, or is the ‘same old same old’, with added twiddly bits and a smidge of geek chic plus directions to Hoxton or Shoreditch wherever the Digerati congregate.

I worked at The Guardian and in the late 1990’s and became Commercial Manger for the fledgling Guardian Unlimited – which has now grown into a behemoth of internet publishing. It was clear (even then) that leadership required many of the same skills as always, and some new stuff.


The weird thing is, that in the 15 odd years since, not only do I still see digital and those associated with it as often being viewed as the mysterious/exotic/different/techy other, there is a mutually reinforcing suspicion. In its most obvious form, I hear HR people struggling to make sense of what digital means in terms of e.g. leadership/management competencies, whilst digital people view their analogue brethren with a mixture of frustration and pity at the apparent addiction to hierarchy and hierarchical decision making that persists in many organisations. Even in OD (Organisational Development), which is where Roffey Park sits, it has been a revelation recently to hear other OD practitioners beginning to acknowledge that this is an area that concerns them as well.

The thing is, this is all a bit late. Digital and social technologies are just that: technologies. And with technology there has always been a gap between the leading edge of technological development and the social processes in the organisations that adopt them e.g. the turmoil caused by the first printing press, steam engines, telephones, email etc. Digital is different, however, in one key respect: it makes this gap widen faster than ever, and many organisations – and people leading them – are simply not ready.

The Roffey Park Management Agenda 2015 research illustrates the extent to which this is now becoming more readily acknowledged. Specifically,…..

  • 61% of respondents agreed that “digital technologies and social media are changing the way I do things in my organisation”
  • 66% of respondents agreed that “my organisation needs to recruit or develop new leadership capabilities to take advantage of digital technologies”

It also echoes the PWC’s 18th Annual Global CEO Survey:

“This year 59% of UK CEOs are concerned by the speed of technological change, up from 55% last year, and one in three (33%) believe that a potential competitor to their business is emerging or could emerge from the technology industry.”

And yet…

At our recent Management Agenda launch event, there was a facilitated discussion amongst the audience around the following question:

“With digital technology impacting the way business is done, what are the key leadership capabilities needed to maximise the value from it? How do you get them?”

The responses are revealing, as it shows that there is still this lack of consensus as to whether organisations would be better off seeing digital as something different or not. Is it new and revolutionary or just a different context?

The main themes emerged from conversations on two tables. On one, a report from McKinsey was mentioned which listed attributes of organisations “successful at digital”:

  • Unreasonably aspirational
  • Challenges everything
  • Quick and data-driven
  • Strong on authenticity.

These were organisational attributes, but it suggests the type of behaviours and competencies leaders might require.

On a second table, there was a debate about whether digital, and what it requires from leaders, was transformational or not. One camp said no, it is all about change and leadership. The other said yes, it changes the way we communicate, blurs the boundaries between public and private, and means leaders need to respond more quickly and sometimes, if they are on the public stage, without the help of their PR/Communications people (hence the need for greater authenticity).

There was discussion, without agreement.

What might we surmise from this? My colleague, Dan Lucy, who sat in on this conversation, reflected:

“It seems to me that what changes is not so much what we need from leaders, but the importance of them being able to deliver it is amplified. We need leaders and cultures that support challenge and the value of good questions. We need leaders that are both authentic and communicate values well. The risks are now greater if this is not the case, not least in terms of reputation, given how fast social media can be to pick up on stories, whether you want it to or not.”

 So what?

Does this mean that there are no implications, or that there are? That digital requires little new from our leaders,or not? Personally, I think it does.

The challenge is that the Roffey Park’s of this world – management and leadership education centres – are largely still making sense of this themselves. Typically, what we do is bring in a speaker who knows about this digital and social ‘stuff’ to talk about it over dinner. We wheel in a talking head who can tell us about the thing that is somehow ‘other’, then they leave and we get back to doing what we were doing. That is no longer enough.

Digital is part of not separate from leadership. You do not need to be a digital strategist or Twitter fiend, or know what Instagram, Pintrest, Tumblr etc are. You do need to begin to understand how all this is influencing patterns of behaviour and relating inside and outside your organisation, expectations of access and speed of response, the changing nature of talent, what this means for your organisation’s culture and how intervening to influence it might be the same and different to what you have done before. And on top of that, you will probably be wrestling with your own self-image and identity. What is enough digital know-how? Will I look stupid/out of touch? How can I approve a business plan or CapEx request when I don’t understand what it is asking me to do?…

Let’s be clear: I am not saying digital requires a whole new leadership approach. What I am saying is that the business of leadership and management development – and the practices of both – need to stop pretending this is something that can be left to the CTO, CIO or Director of Digital to sort out. It is closer to home.

Steve Hearsum is Programme Director of Digital Leadership.

The Management Agenda 2015 can be downloaded from our website free of charge.