I wrote an article not long ago on the need to build your digital “dream team,” but what exactly is the responsibility of leaders in our digital age? I spoke with Russell Masters, director of IT and analytics at DHU, a provider to the UK National Health Service, for this week’s podcast about the degree to which all leaders must develop digital capabilities. Does everyone need to be a digital expert? No, but all leaders need to reach a level of digital proficiency in some key areas.
Here’s what Russell, who has worked in services for more than 20 years having notably been a part of helping build digital services at Rolls-Royce before joining DHU, has to say about the demand of leaders today to become more digitally adept: “It’s really challenging to take forward the blending of IT technology with the real world and go through what has effectively been a transition big IT to the more ubiquitous version of that which is digital. Every aspect of our life now is touched by some form of digital technology. And I would suggest that the generation of business leaders we have now are right at the forefront of being the first to take those big digital tools and technologies and deploy them into their companies, into their businesses and their teams at any real scale.”
While the digital era doesn’t require all leaders to be technical experts, it does require an effort to build more digital understanding and acumen and to think a bit differently about how you build, motivate, and measure teams who do have the technical digital skillsets you lack. Here are five key areas of focus when it comes to stepping up your leadership to be more digitally proficient.
#1: Acknowledge the Necessity
There’s no denying that digital is a front-and-center focus of every organization today. But there are leaders who feel they can leave this all “to the experts,” and this is a major misstep. It is necessary for all leaders to build a better understanding of digital so that they are able to see the opportunities it offers the company, set a strategy to digitally transform and evolve, and drive continual progress. It’s simply too critical an area of the business not to become more adept in.
“I’m probably part of one of the first generations of leaders who’ve really had to get their head round how do you take these digital tools and technologies and how do you deploy them successfully into your organization? With the complete democratization of those technologies, leaders are wrestling with how to make something really successful out of something that they probably haven’t had a lot of chance to understand but know is incredibly important and being used by everyone everywhere to make their businesses better and more effective,” says Russell.
We’re talking about making sophisticated technology very simple for both employees and customers, and this requires immense knowledge and skill. While you don’t need to hold all of that knowledge and skill yourself, you certainly can’t opt out of educating yourself and improving your competence in such an important area.
#2: Know Your Role
While it is essential to put effort into building digital proficiency, that does not mean you need to become a technical expert. You need to find a balance of having ample understanding and capability, enough so that you can make important decisions and effectively lead a team, but not getting buried in a rabbit hole of feeling you need to become the #1 digital expert in your business. What’s the right balance for you between passing the buck (not acceptable) and feeling you must become a deep technical expert (likely not reasonable OR necessary)?
“I think the subject of digital technology starts, first and foremost, with some pretty super sophisticated content. And that can be really daunting when you’re starting to contemplate how do you take digital forward,” says Russell. “And there’s always a sense and a concern that really maybe you have to actually be a developer yourself to be able to be effective in these areas, maybe actually have to understand architecture. This concern is a barrier that can get in the way for a lot of leaders. The truth is, you do need to know something about the technology, and you do need to find a way of interacting with the many, many technical people that you’ll meet. To be more digitally enabled, you need to understand the subject matter a bit more but not to be too worried about knowing it to the Nth degree.”
#3: Learn (and Respect) the Language
This means that the path to building digital proficiency for most leaders has a lot to do with increasing your digital acumen and focusing on creating a common language around digital within your organization to ensure everyone stays aligned. Growing your understanding and building this common language is what allows you to participate at a productive level in all key decisions and progress without needing to get lost in the weeds of the deep details.
“You do need to know enough about the technology to make yourself educated and informed, but you don’t have to be the expert,” says Russell. “This comes from learning to ask intelligent questions and learning to pick out the areas where maybe it’s worth digging into a big deeper. This is a far more valuable skill than, for example, taking yourself back to night school and learning all about cloud architecture. Your job is to become familiar and converse in the broad language and be able to know who to speak to about which challenge and which issue, and to learn how to bring those people together in a way that drives towards a common goal. Much the same as if you’re building a house, you wouldn’t lecture your architect on where to put the beams and how deep the footings would be, you trust that they know how to do their job. But you’d certainly have an opinion on what the outcome should look like.”
#4: Build a Team You Trust (and Trusts You)
While you should not shirk your responsibility to grow your digital understanding and abilities, you need to use that understanding to build strength in the technical layers that are beyond what your role requires. Good leaders know enough to define the digital strengths needed and focus on hiring a team that delivers these skills that they can trust. This trust is important, because you won’t know all of the details they do – so you need to trust their abilities and make them feel empowered to accomplish the objectives, and they need to trust your leadership and feel adequately valued.
“Your first focus should be building a great team,” says Russell. “Having built that great team, you’ve got to trust that that team can do the task that you put them together for. Now, by the same account, you still have to be there and show up every day and show interest and drive the energy. As a leader, your job in a number of ways is to just pour constant amounts of energy into those projects. It can be really difficult when you’re leading a big project to understand how far do you go in demonstrating that you’re committed and care about it and you’re willing to take action and participate and how do you make sure you don’t go too far and stifle the creativity and the enthusiasm and the ownership of the team around you?” This is where you use your knowledge to guide, motivate, and empower versus control or micromanage.
#5: Measure Outcomes
Russell was adamant that one of the biggest changes in digital leadership is adjusting to a different way of measuring contribution, where you’re focusing more on outcomes and less on tasks. “Digital leaders must get better at working towards outcomes. This starts with enabling the team to understand those outcomes and then really supporting and empowering them, moving away from a culture where you’re the one making all the decisions and you’re the one driving all the actions to the one where you’re more making the team accountable for the outcome that you’ll need to deliver and fostering a culture where we all work together to achieve an end result,” he explains.
This can require a shift in management philosophy and even company culture but is far more aligned to making progress the way you need to with digital projects and digital talent. “These ways of working are not necessarily well understood or well-practiced everywhere but moving away from action to outcome and focusing on creating the right culture and collaborative spirit with the right team is what leads to success in this digital age.”
Stay tuned for far more insights on this week’s podcast.