This week, we had fun hosting an event on how to discover and nurture digital leaders. We covered key strategies and approaches, which we have derived from both our client work and research (slides below).

Also, as inevitably happens, new questions and provocations came up during our panel discussion with business and HR executives: Rachel Cook (Practice Director at Atkins), Caroline Gorski (Head of IoT at Digital Catapult), and Caroline Mellor (Global Director of HR Effectiveness at Dentsu Aegis Network). So here, I thought to do a round-up of three key points which stimulated great debate and discussion.

1) A hard look at soft skills

Hiring and talent development have long included a nod to ‘soft skills’ – we see it in the standard use of competency models and classic HR training on topics like high-performance coaching and conflict resolution. But too often, this focus gets dismissed by the business as non-revenue generating and, thus, shunted to optional L&D training courses of low production value. We need to shift this thinking.

The uncertainty of the digital economy requires more connected, curious leaders who can inspire and influence in the face of constant change. These attributes – a better word that drops the ‘soft skill’ baggage – must become more central to the leadership models that HR and the business use to identify leaders in executive hiring, succession plans, and performance reviews. At the event, our panelists highlighted practical tools – such as Gallup’s Strength Finders 2.0 and the VIA character survey – as effective ways to formalise a focus on leaders’ strengths and competencies.

2) A tighter link between the digital and diversity agenda

Today, the digital and diversity agendas ride on parallel tracks in both our organisations and the news – often sharing the same spotlight, but rarely referenced as interconnected movements. There are more dependencies between the two than we give credit. Diverse teams bring together the varied perspectives and experiences that result in combinatorial innovation (think the printing press in the Renaissance and digital products like Blaze Laserlight and Nest today).

A tighter linkage between the digital and diversity agendas will further both – elevating the human benefits often missing in technology-centric digital transformation efforts, and reinforcing the business benefits of designing an organisation that is simultaneously diverse and capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st Century.

3) A challenge to the ‘marshmallow middle’

Several of our panelists spoke about how senior leadership endorses digital and front-line employees – many of whom are digital natives – bring a digital mindset to their workday, but momentum gets stalled in the ‘marshmallow’ layer of middle managers whose performance is usually tied to hard revenue and productivity metrics. While it is impossible to quickly and broadly go against the grain of performance cultures, it becomes senior leaderships role to create ‘safe places’ where, for a time, teams can innovate and experiment without the pressure of quarterly demands.

Gov.UK uses Firebreaks to do just that. Firebreaks are a time of fewer top-down commitments, in which people investigate new ideas, work through the technical backlog, and pursue lateral areas of interests. This ritual releases pressure from the system and gives people the space to try out ideas which had to wait when they were working on hard deadlines.

Read more in our digital leadership collection

There is a growing body of research on new models of digital leadership, and the role that digital leaders play in adaptive organisations. We have explored this research, putting many of the models to practical use during our client engagements. To continue the dialogue, we have also published several posts on our blog. For more insights about this theme, see our collection:

If you are interested in creating new programs for discovering and nurturing digital leaders, then we would love to hear from you and share more about our digital leadership learning and animation sessions.