Photo by Walter Rodriguez

I am excited to speak this Tuesday on the Building Blocks of a Digital Operating Model, at the CeBIT Enterprise Digital Arena in Hanover. In my talk, I will be taking a deeper look at the connected organisations that produce innovative digital products. There are now plenty of examples of responsive org models in large companies — from the self-managing teams of community nurses at the Dutch homecare organisation Buurtzorg, to the inverted pyramid and autonomous business units that the Chinese firm Haier uses to dominate the global appliance market.

The origin stories of these pioneering organisations often have in common a visionary leader. In the case of Buurtzorg, it’s the CEO and former community nurse Jos de Blok. For Haier, it’s CEO Zhang Ruimin — who in the beginning infamously took a sledgehammer to the faulty refrigerators the firm was making.

These leaders create and protect the space in which new ways of working can emerge. They take a radical approach to decision-making, interconnectedness, and power, which renounces the command-and-control model most often found in corporates. They are a new breed of leader that I suspect we will find largely missing from today’s succession plans, which tend to cast ‘high-potentials’ in the mould of incumbent leaders. We need to do more to develop the emerging digital leaders who are hiding in full view.

At the same time, we must take a more honest approach with current senior leadership. Today’s leaders are highly-paid adults, and their organisations urgently need them to get with the programme of change. But all too often, HR-led development programs treat them as children, settling for a few tweets or a first blog post as digital progress.

It cannot stop there. To develop leaders capable of handling the uncertainty of the 21st Century, we need a sweeping change of the content, format, and access to corporate leadership development. And so in Tuesday’s keynote session, I will submit an alternative model of leadership development designed to discover and nurture digital leadership.

More radical in content

Perhaps the biggest overhaul of leadership development programs lies in the content itself. Most of the courses that we have seen and experienced feature all the current concepts (How will you deal with AI/IoT/Bot/Mobile disruption??). But they fail to ask the more fundamental and often uncomfortable questions that digitisation kicks up. 

How will leaders engender trust on hybrid human-computer teams, when many employees fear the robots will take their jobs? Or, perhaps even more worrying to management itself, how many middle managers will an organisation require when the coordination and communication tasks typically associated with line management become automated?

For our organisations to have a fighting chance, we need leadership education that features honest debate on the more difficult implications of digitisation.

More experiential in format

Richard Saul Wurman, the American architect and graphic artist, reminds us: “Learning is remembering what you are interested in.” We become interested in something when we experience it. That’s why the most effective training courses seek to get us ‘out of our seats’ through workshops and exercises. The best leadership training that I have experienced, such as The Center For Leadership Studies’ Situational Leadership, use roleplay to reinforce key lessons learned. 

These programs are great, however, they usually focus on individualistic change — e.g. leader-by-leader — and mostly ignore the interconnected transformation required for modern strategies and org structures. We have thought extensively about a similarly experiential model to train leaders on the macro elements of transformation. Our research and client work has led us to an approach that melds guided learning with hands-on design sessions. In this environment, groups of emerging leaders are both exposed to the art of the possible and also directly involved in co-designing the elements of a digital-first firm – including new structures, practice, culture, and leadership.

More distributed in access

Executive offsites and 1:1 coaching — the bedrocks of traditional leadership training — are both expensive and resource-intensive. As a result, they are typically only lavished on a few emerging leaders who are earmarked for senior positions. By their very structure and exclusivity, these programmes perpetuate hierarchical leadership, in which a few at the top make all the important decisions. 

By contrast, a diverse set of pioneering organisations — from start-ups like Valve, to corporates like Bosch, to the US military — are seeing the benefits of nurturing leadership skills from the bottom up. 

How do we create more distributed leadership training?

On the one hand, interactive online courses open access to a much larger swath of employees. But on the other, we need to stretch our thinking beyond the workshops and interventions of classic L&D. We should redeploy training budgets on programs where people learn to lead by, well, leading. Companies like Continental and Daimler empower change agent networks to involve the entire firm in transformation. These ‘digital guides’ not only enable a more inclusive change process, but also learn how to exercise leadership within connected companies.

Where we go from here

At Post*Shift, we believe that the demands to identify and nurture a new breed of digital leaders will be the catalyst for a redesign of classic leadership programmes and L&D. If you are on the floor of CeBIT and would like to discuss the exciting implications, then reach out to me on Twitter (@coverby). And if we miss each other in Hanover, but you are in London next week, then do check out our evening event on March 28: “Building Digital Leadership Within Your Organisation”.