Senior leaders can get a bad rap. They often get the blame for many of the failings of digital transformation programmes. I’ve had countless conversations with clients, friends and colleagues tearing their hair out as executives refuse to engage with new ways of working and continue with out-dated management methods, or (worse) publicly endorse the transformation needed, but then fail to back it up with any action.
But of course, it is not entirely their fault. Senior leaders generally find themselves in their positions by virtue of having the qualities of traditional leadership: being able to come up with the answers to command a team, and maintain control – or at least get good at presenting the illusion of control upwards through the hierarchy. This is what the organisation has taught them, through its structure, processes and culture, is required to be a leader. So we should not be surprised that many leaders still operate this way.
I also suspect that many senior leaders know that the traditional command and control approach is now an unwise philosophy on which to build your leadership style. They will have first-hand experience that tells them that proclamations and decrees don’t actually mean people will do what you’re asking them to do, and that this stifles empowerment and responsiveness. I’m also willing to bet they are aware that control, in the sense of creating predictable outcomes, is an almost laughably misguided notion in 2017.
So, why do these traditional approaches endure? My hunch is that it’s not that executives don’t know that the role of leaders today must fundamentally shift in order to facilitate wider change. Instead, it’s that nobody has really shown them practical, credible alternative leadership methods that help them transition from commanders to enablers. So instead, they stick to what they know. We are doing some very interesting leadership coaching right now around contextual leadership, ambidextrous leadership and other approaches that try to create more space for exploration rather than just exploitation. We are finding that only by linking these concepts to practical scenarios, projects and issues do the ideas come to life, but also that it is important to suggest specific management techniques and digital-first behaviours that can help put them into practice.
Executive away days and theoretical executive training are not enough. We need to bridge the gap between ideas, practice and day-to-day behaviours. So, I wanted to offer a brief list of Digital Leadership 101 actions that can be taken right now, and that when practised regularly will start to enable the leadership you need for digital-age organisations:
- Always Be Connecting: Leaders in digital-age orgs are network-centric, getting things done using influence and persuasion within social networks, not just authority. It’s possible to do this purely face-to-face, but you’re really missing a trick if you haven’t started using your companies social collaboration tech – or externally, Twitter or Linked In – which will turbo boost your efforts
- Default to transparency: Unless there is an absolutely business critical reason, share information. A big part of getting the benefits of a network is sharing with them what you are doing and getting feedback. Get into the habit of narrating your work using internal collaboration tools. Not only does this give you insights from colleagues, but as a leader, you will give permission for the entire team to feel safe sharing.
- Radically distribute decision-making: In the digital-age, leadership is less about knowing all the answers and more about empowering those in your team closest to the real-time information to make judgements on the best course of action. Encourage sharing and discussion of problems widely, and ask your people to make the final calls. Limit risk through trying and learning through many small experiments, rather than going all in with big plays.
- Enable flow: Critically examine how much of your activity as a leader creates barriers and bureaucracy for your team, instead of enabling them by removing unnecessary blockers. Every team member will require different levels of support from you depending on their maturity and skill level. Make the effort to work out what that looks like so that you know when to support and guide and when to get out of the way.
- Find your guide: This new style of leadership requires valuing and recognising a very different set of skills, that most incumbent leaders have never been taught. One of the most successful practices in making that transition can be through finding a mentor or guide to steer you through. Be open-minded in where you find them: they can external to your organisation or even be junior to you.
If that’s not enough food for thought, here are some links to further reading on these and other leadership practices for you to try:
- A practical technique for mapping and enabling flow for your team
- From the Post*Shift archives: How to Lead in the Age of Algorithms
- Musings on management: “We’re bad at most things by default. The only way to overcome the deficit is with the right kind of practice.”
- A case study on how to destroy command-and-control
- A collection of thoughts tracking the history of observable work