3 Characteristics of the New Digital Leader Mindset

Digitalization has created even larger leadership gaps in organizations around the world, and leaders today need different skills than in generations past.

A long-existing retail company, after collecting personal information on customers from online sources, prints the data on paper and passes it on to analysts for credit scoring. In a leading consulting company, back-office processes have been automated, but they still mimic the old, paper-based workflow exactly, including the screens, which look like the earlier-generation paper forms.

Many standardized processes or prescriptive procedure manuals are no longer appropriate

“The real problem here is not only the outdated processes, but also the institutionalized, traditional mindset in organizations,” says Cassio Dreyfuss, vice president at Gartner.

Despite how business has changed over time, most enterprises still exhibit the characteristics of traditional prescriptive methods — visible hierarchy of command, structure, functions, standardized processes and appropriate controls. Organizations tell employees what to do and how well they are expected to do it. Employees have limited autonomy but are able to achieve higher efficiency and performance levels, particularly in routine, standardized and commoditized processes.

Conversely, in the digital world of rapid responses to unanticipated opportunities and threats, many standardized processes or prescriptive procedure manuals are no longer appropriate. For example, a dynamic credit card company created a “clearing counter” as a front end for new initiatives and to stimulate company-wide employee creativity.

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These kinds of initiatives do not fit into an existing process framework — and they no longer need to. In the digital age, employees have higher levels of autonomy, and solutions are devised and developed collaboratively.

Leaders, whether the team manager, domain expert or CHRO, need to progress from managing change to leading it. These three initiatives will help.

Adopt the principle of “people first”’

In the digital environment, leaders cannot simply “manage” work. They have to engage their workforces and inspire people to participate. It’s not enough for leaders to know what they want to achieve when starting new initiatives; leaders have to listen to employees from the outset, asking them how they see proposed outcome.

Leaders can inspire employees by removing individual insecurity or personal restrictions, helping them define their part in the mission and providing a perspective of personal rewards. The next part for leaders is to work with employees, determine the nature and volume of their work and get them to commit to it.

Develop trust and collaboration continually

Collaboration is the key to success for leadership in the digital age. But collaboration is simply not possible without shared purpose, individual and collective engagement, and commitment.

There are two aspects to collaboration — attitude and action.

Employees must be encouraged to develop the right attitude. And they must be willing to collaborate with, at the very least, their team members. Once that first threshold has been reached, employees will then be able to decide how they will effectively collaborate on specific goals and objectives. In this regard, the role of a leader is to encourage and coach employees individually and collectively to evolve in a more collaborative direction.

Share leadership wisely

True collaborative environments require situational, role-based leadership. Without the security of predefined processes, leaders will not know for sure what decisions or directions will be necessary along the way.

The digital leader will be comfortable handing over the reins

The digital leader will be comfortable handing over the reins to other people and picking the right leader in each situation, as circumstances require. Instead of a power position based on authority, the team will have situational, competency-based, even self-organized leadership. The CHRO and other C-level executives may be, by role, the essential overall leaders, but team leaders and domain experts will also play critical leadership roles.

This article is based on insights that are part of an in-depth collection of research, tools, templates and advice available to Gartner clients.


Gartner for HR clients can read more in New Digital Age Leadership: Guiding People to Engage, Collaborate — and Do Their Best by Cassio Dreyfuss.

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