Photo by Brooke Lark

Eight years ago this week, I started my first real job, for a global financial institution. It was in the wake of the financial crisis, so banks weren’t exactly “employer goals”, but to be honest, I was just grateful to be getting a regular income. And my role? My job was to facilitate the process for checking that people had completed “Project Request” forms correctly. I literally spent my days reviewing MS Word documents to see if grown adults could follow instructions. And my boss? My boss’s role was to check that I had checked the forms. I have no idea what her boss did, but I shudder to think.

Looking back, now that I work somewhere where autonomous, accountable and open working is paramount, this situation seems unbelievably comic. The very idea of paying someone to check up on your employees for doing something they should be quite capable of doing themselves is the definition of ridiculous. Yet, in 2009, it seemed not only acceptable, but necessary.

I’m proud to say, that within a year, I’d successfully made the case for scrapping the entire team and we’d all been redeployed to more useful roles. Yet, a situation from nearly a decade ago that seems almost quaint to me now (much like fax machines and clocking-in) is something that still exists in corporations the world over.

How many times have you worked on a task, just to have your work checked or interfered with, by a whole host of managers, only for it to come back full-circle to what you outlined in the first place? Or to flip the coin, as a manager, how much time do you have to spend every day on checking what your team is up to, or fulfilling compliance-based processes rather than tasks that add genuine value to your work? Imagine the wasted time and effort. Actually, we donโ€™t have to imagine – others have done the math – an estimated $3 trillion a year in the US alone or the equivalent of 8.9 million worker years.

There is simply no credible business case anymore for people hired solely to micro-manage and oversee. The rise of chatbot technology that enables automation of checking, reporting and prompting team members means that there is very little of these middle management tasks that really need an actual human to manage. At Post*Shift, we use our Slackbot and other integrations to prompt team check-ins, gather reporting inputs and report back to us. The thought of any one of us spending our valuable time and energy on such things makes us balk. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

So, what do we need leaders for?

I am a fan of following two overarching principles or beliefs until proven otherwise. These are first, that people are not stupid. If they are, why have you hired them in the first place? Second, that people can be trusted. Again, if they can’t, then why are they there? If you take this as your starting point, then the 20th-century construct of what it means to be a manager falls away. Yet leadership โ€“ envisioning, inspiring, coaching, and, at times, instructing โ€“ still endures.

There is a place for leadership in organisations, not as a role, but as a skill set. Having a bunch of autonomous employees can easily descend into chaos if they don’t have clear direction and focus. Equally, expecting them to continually generate their own motivation for high performance is a big ask. Leadership in the digital age involves the ability to motivate employees and to deliver results in the face of constant change. Therefore successful digital leadership is based on your ability to generate a following not because you’ve been given a title, but by the merit of your ideas, influence and adaptability.

This means leadership should be seen as a mantle that anyone can take up, and that is not narrowed down to your position on the org chart. To be able do this requires new skills: curiosity, serving, connected, inclusive and situational. We’ve written about these before, and even have a free test you can take to see your own strengths and gaps. However, I guarantee you this – you definitely have people with these skills in your organisation and the likelihood is, you haven’t found them all yet. Probably because you won’t have been looking in the right places.

Finding your new leaders

These people will not necessarily be where you think, and there’s a strong possibility many aren’t on your current emerging/future leaders programme. This will be because often, such programmes are operating with identification and skills frameworks that follow what we have always assumed must be good leadership skills like command-and-control decision making.

It’s time to reframe what we’re looking for, and therefore where we look for it:

  • Connect: Leadership based on who is willing to follow you means you need people who are demonstrably network-centric, and generous connectors. If you have any form of enterprise social network or collaboration software, use the reporting available from the tool to tell you who the most connected and highly-contributing employees are. In a previous job, I found some of my most influential advocates for organisational change through our ESN, many on the front line who were far more capable of leadership than many senior to them.
  • Ask: Another successful technique I’ve used in the past is to post a simple advert asking a series of questions to surface the people with the qualities you’re looking for. You can post this physically, virtually or both. Those who are motivated and interested enough to respond are the curious souls you’re looking for.
  • Recognise: Review what qualities you are currently using to denote good performance, and reframe them to align to this update view of leadership. Encourage everyone to spot 21st century leadership in others and to recognise it visibly. This can be as informal as tagging recognition messages on your company collaboration platform, which is not only easy to do, but also makes it easy to search by the recognition tag for your emerging leaders
  • Distribute authority: Push down decision-making to those closest to the information to be able to correctly make a call. The more you can do this, the more it can become obvious who has natural leadership skills for the digital age.

Finding them is only half the story. it’s also important to give them the support they need to be successful in the transition between the two paradigms of what it means to be a leader in organisations.

Supporting your digital leaders

In any transition period, tensions run high as the new wave of thinking and change activity constantly push against the old way of doing things. For your digital leader cohorts, this can be draining, scary and seem downright not worth it, leading to them leaving or giving up. To embed digital leadership it is important to provide support to these pioneers for change. How do you do this?

  • Create a network: Set up a support network so that they can connect with each other and share stories of their experiences. This enables their resilience as a team, facilitates knowledge sharing and creates bonds that can weather storms far better than they could as individuals.
  • Open communication: Make sure you have channels where these employees can easily communicate and exchange ideas with the rest of business. One of the key tasks for digital leaders will be to create more of them. Operating in their own closed network means their skills and ideas are not able to propagate. Encourage them to share what they are doing with the whole organisation, through openly narrating their work
  • Mentor: Pair existing digital leaders with emerging ones in a mentoring relationship, giving validity to the digital leadership approach. Remember, we don’t necessarily mean leader in the hierarchical sense of the word. Existing digital leaders could be found anywhere in the organisation, and emerging ones could be at senior levels, leading to a reverse-mentor relationship.

Of course, these are just a few ideas on how to get started on instilling some focus on what it means to be a leader in the digital age. If this has whet your appetite for more discussion, we are holding an event in March for HR professionals, where we hope to share more ways to introduce these digital leadership skills into organisations. Sign up to come along here.