For the most part, companies are no longer wrestling, as they once did, with the question of whether or not they need a senior executive in a digital transformation leadership role. Countless corporate case studies over the past few years have demonstrated the clear need for strong leadership when it comes to designing and implementing digital strategy and transformation efforts. But now, companies are facing an even more challenging question: what exactly sets successful digital transformation leaders apart from other senior executives? In other words, what traits do these leaders have that others don’t?
To help companies answer this question, Russell Reynolds Associates (RRA), the global executive-level recruitment consulting and advisory firm, conducted an intensive assessment of 28 of the world’s most successful digital transformation leaders and compared their findings with data on other senior executives in more traditional roles. RRA’s analysis revealed a remarkable 21 different attributes unique to digital transformation leaders; indeed, RRA analysts were struck by the significant differences between this cohort of top executives and other groups. When compared with other executives, digital leaders are far more likely to have the following traits:
Innovation is perhaps the defining characteristic of top digital transformation leaders. Thinking outside the box, challenging traditional approaches, experimenting with new ideas, asking inquisitive questions—these are the hallmarks of leaders who are looking towards the future.
Digital transformation leaders are not just there to provide answers, they’re there to ask the questions that will help the company move forward and to develop solutions that are ambitious but still within the bounds of what is possible. Sometimes, conceptual or abstract thinking is what helps bring ideas into reality, and digital leaders excel at this kind of metaphorical work.
But don’t mistake these leaders for impractical dreamers; they are relentless in linking innovation to clear business outcomes, recognizing that the primary purpose of new and untested ideas is to drive revenue growth or cost-reduction goals.
Steady-state management is not how digital transformation leaders like to operate. While many traditional executives prefer the known to the unknown, digital transformation leaders thrive on ambiguity and uncertainty, with little regard—or even tolerance—for the way things have always been done.
One of the main ways in which this trait manifests itself in digital leaders is in their inclination to cut through bureaucracy to speed up the pace of decision-making and action. While a certain amount of bureaucracy may be necessary, particularly at large companies, in order to properly manage risk and take advantage of economies of scale, digital leaders are adept at bureaucratic decluttering, cutting through unnecessary, long-established processes to identify what the current situation calls for.
This comfort with ambiguity is perhaps what gives digital transformation leaders their reputation for boldness. Recognizing that to be a game-changer, one must be able to set direction without fear, digital leaders are more than ready to take initiative and to test and push the limits of their companies in order to unearth hidden capabilities and bold, new ideas. In addition, digital leaders are more likely than other senior executives to lead from the front, embracing the high level of public visibility that comes with being a change agent. For digital leaders and the companies they serve, it’s not only important to succeed, it’s important to be seen succeeding.
The ability to come up with innovative and disruptive ideas is all well and good, but it’s of little use without the social skills needed to be able to communicate these ideas effectively. That’s why today’s top digital transformation leaders are highly socially adept.
They know that the key to garnering support from their diverse constituencies and stakeholders is to be able to clearly and confidently share their vision, outlining how change will affect different groups and earning buy-in through careful listening and addressing questions and concerns. Digital leaders know it will be fruitless to attempt to implement change in spite of or against the will of the organization, so they have learned how to leverage their social capabilities, including the ability to adapt their communication style to different audiences, for maximum effect.
The pace and demands of digital change are ruthless. In response to this, digital transformation leaders have turned determination into a fine art. The role of a digital leader is not simply to develop a vision for the future, it’s also to guide a company and its people into that future, and this requires a strong sense of commitment and a deep resolve to see things through.
Through this determination, the best digital leaders are also instrumental in helping others become transformational as well; the right combination of bravery and optimism can be infectious, creating a change-ready atmosphere and attitude within an organization that is a key ingredient for digital success.
By: Keith Krach