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By Chris Underwood, MD at Adastrum Consulting

Digital technology continues to disrupt and change how and where we work, how we shop, how we learn and communicate, how we do business and even how our economy runs. For organisations, the challenge is to take advantage of opportunities and mitigate risks to stay ahead of the curve. Leadership teams will be at the forefront, driving organisational change and leading teams through transformation.

By 2030, it is expected that more than 10 million UK workers will be under-skilled in digital, decision making and communications, all fundamental skills for modern leaders (The Future of Work, McKinsey 2019). The effect could be felt more immediately, with 44% of executives fearing the current lack of digital skills in their organisation will negatively impact success in the next year (Unlocking the UK’s potential with digital skills, Microsoft 2020). External talent sourcing cannot be relied on to bridge the gap; therefore, organisations need to drive the development of their workforce, upskilling them to work with, exploit and understand the digital world as a matter of urgency.

Developing digital competencies

Technical skills are obviously important but can quickly become outdated. Alongside recruiting and training for the specific skills required for execution, leadership development should equip executives with a broader understanding of digital innovation and data. This will give them the knowledge and experience to make informed decisions, quickly, as new innovations and opportunities emerge. It also avoids organisations being dazzled by shiny new technology, which without first understanding their benefits, could become a source of future technical debt.

At the same time, development programmes cannot overlook the importance of softer skills to successfully implement transformation. Good communication skills, developing emotional intelligence (EQ), curiosity and resilience remain key leadership behaviours. Equally, developing leaders to be adaptable to change and encouraging them to explore and experiment with new ways of working are essential for forward-looking organisations.

Leading with data

Data collected during crises and periods of rapid change can help organisations to pivot effectively and manage future disruption. However, gathering data without an agenda for how it will serve the organisation, is futile and can be a distraction. Its real value is unlocked when it is properly interrogated to answer questions such as “how can we reduce operating costs?” or, “where can we improve customer journeys?” and even, “where do we need to upskill staff?” to guide decision-making.  

The difference between competent analysts and strong data leaders is the ability to communicate with others who think in terms of business outcomes. Leaders who can use data to tell stories and add credibility to their plans and vision build trust and secure buy-in from teams and stakeholders. This ensures the whole organisations is a part of the transformation journey and not dragged along for the ride.   

Digital business models

All senior leaders must understand the digital ecosystem and how the digital economy works but also how new technology and systems can disrupt current models. Simple system upgrades and purchasing new digital tools should not be confused with transformation, which improves processes to create a competitive edge and strengthen the business overall. With this knowledge, executives can identify how digital models have the potential to change the way customers purchase and interact with them in the future, and make the organisation more resilient in the long-term.

Build confidence and knowledge to choose solutions by giving leaders the space to investigate new ways of working and evaluate analysing running and installation costs. Armed with an overview of current business problems and challenges they will focus on improving the processes that will make the biggest impact, fast. Leaders able to think creatively will work within budgets, time constraints and business priorities to redefine the art of what is possible and help organisations to become disruptors rather than be disrupted! 

Retaining talent for leadership

Event-based training has, of course, been on hold for the past year and many organisations have streamlined training programmes to focus on what is necessary and what can be delivered virtually. However, in a disruptive, ever-changing environment, delaying development until “peace time” will only postpone progress and alienate talent.

Prioritising new methods of delivery and maximising opportunities for training during the flexible working day will help L&D professionals continue development even during periods of uncertainty. Combining different skills to create cross-teams can enhance learning experiences on-the-job and naturally cultivate a more sociable, sharing culture – something which has been more difficult while everyone has been working from home.  

Once digital capabilities have been developed, they will be highly sought after. Therefore, talent management strategies must focus on identifying and retaining digitally skilled individuals for leadership to plan for the future.