Photo by Lacie Slezak

Until relatively recently, what it takes to lead an organisation, and how to become a leader had barely changed over the course of the 20th century. An employee wishing to climb the hierarchy simply had to gather enough experience and expertise in their job and they could be promoted through the ranks, not forgetting that networking with the right people serves as a short-cut.

Once in the position of leader it is no surprise that top-down management practices were held as the gold standard. After all, if promotions take place largely due to years of building knowledge of the jobs your team members now do, it follows that you would feel expected to know all the answers and be responsible for telling your team how to do their jobs.

This says all you need to know about traditionally ‘good’ leadership skills. Either you must have enough knowledge and experience of the business area you lead that you can dictate to your team or the ability to manage upwards. Really great leaders excelled at both.

The uncomfortable truth is that for a long time, this way of leading worked really well. For most of the last century, markets were stable, and teams were there to repeat what they had always done. That is until the rise of digital brought into sharp focus the elephant in the room – organisations have never encouraged, promoted, hired or incentivised leaders based on their ability to get the best out of people, but rather their ability to meet performance targets. Many organisations refer to this as people management skills, but that betrays a shade of 20th century thinking. In the digital age people no longer need to be managed, they need to be enabled. Edicts and directives are the wrong tools for this job.

The pace of change, speed of communication and high customer expectations requires a level of responsiveness and speed from organisations that leaves no time for messages passed up and down hierarchies for decisions to be made. There is no other option but to pass authority down the hierarchy closer to where the work happens. This leaves leaders free to look outward rather than inward, to track and anticipate market trends and set wider direction.

Learning by doing, over showing or telling

Clearly to lead in this new reality requires a new set of skills and competencies. Leaders must be comfortable not knowing the right answer, but know what questions to ask of their team so they can experiment with solutions. Leaders must focus on ensuring their teams know the what and why, but are more than happy for them to figure out the how, supporting them through coaching and removing blockers. Leaders must build influence and persuasion through connectedness and inclusion, sharing work in progress and inviting input. And, most of all, leaders must have the digital fluency to leverage technology to supercharge all of the above.

Organisations are not blind to this. Indeed, we’ve noticed a huge demand for “Digital Leader” skills programmes from large organisations in the last couple of years as they have identified this as the weak spot of their senior teams. They are desperate to help them transition into this new mould quickly, often against the backdrop of a major digital workplace technology implementation.

However, the silver-bullet solutions often grasped for by HR seem to fall into either Silicon Valley/Roundabout innovation tours (in the hope that digital skills can be learnt though a kind of inspiration-based osmosis), or creating one-off development programmes that essentially badger them to write a blog post or set up a twitter account.

It doesn’t need me to point out that this falls vastly short of what leaders or the organisation deserve, both in content and approach. Digital leadership skills are not about being able to replicate top-down communications online. It is an entirely new set of leadership attributes that enable them to empower their teams to continually create value. On top of this, these approaches are learning by showing or telling, which we know doesn’t work. Of course seeing digital leadership in action is inspiring, but being a digital leader is what is truly transformational.

It is time for a shift in how we support the development of digital leaders. We need learning programmes that:

  • Embed learning by doing: It is no good simply telling leaders how they should be leading, nor showing them examples of other companies that exemplify the gold standard. We need to be creating the opportunities to practice new skills incrementally, from basic to advanced in situations that directly relate to the work they do. Hypothetically engineered scenarios that are a step removed from their day-to-day are no good, instead we must identify where digital ways of working will add impact and value to their current work and enable them to experience how that feels themselves and the benefits of developing these skills.
  • Allow for continuous learning: One-off away days, or once-and-done digital skills courses allow for HR teams to tick annual objectives boxes to say that leaders have had training “delivered”, but they rarely result in genuine changes to the way leaders operate. Far more sustainable learning occurs where leaders are encouraged to start practicing new habits, one at a time, rather than achieving “goals”. We need to embed learning resources that continually support and incentivise leaders in taking up new habits which, over time, go from becoming difficult tasks to second nature.
  • Engineer opportunities for learning through collaboration: Not only are we more likely to stick with a new practice if we have others doing it with us, but also learning with others is where opportunities to combine new knowledge and experiences can lead to new ideas and innovation. As an added benefit, this approach also exemplifies many of the digital skills such as sharing work in progress and collaborative problem-solving. We need to create digital leadership development programmes that bake in this kind of collaborative learning network as part of the experience.

Where to get started

At Post*Shift, we believe this redesign of leadership development approaches is not only long overdue but critical in order to enable the digital fluency they are more than capable of building.  We’ve been lucky enough to work with some great organisations embedding new digital skills into leaders day-to-day activities and operations. If you would like to find out more about our digital leadership enablement work, then please get in touch, we’d love to share.