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7 Traits of Highly Successful Digital Leaders

November 11, 2020 Contributor: Jordan BryanTo lead successful digital business transformations, leaders must also transform themselves. Consider these traits that differentiate successful digital leaders.

Digital leaders tend to think of digital transformation and acceleration in terms of technologies, business outcomes, process changes and their impact on people. But they often overlook the massive disruption that kind of transformation generates for leadership — and the enormous impact they can have on the success or failure of their organization’s digital transformation.

Those who are most successful exhibit seven standout characteristics. Kasey Panetta, Senior Content Marketing Manager at Gartner, sits down with Mary Mesaglio, Distinguished VP Analyst at Gartner, to discuss the seven traits of these highly successful digital leaders and why it’s so important that they be curious about new things, understand the difference between creativity and innovation, and never consider digital to be the outcome.

No. 1: Digital leaders are neophiliacs

Neophilia is a term for people who are naturally attracted to newness. Neophiliacs are always ready to explore new situations, tend to be more open to making and embracing new opportunities, and are curious about new ideas.

There are downsides to being a neophiliac, but it’s necessary for digital leadership because the rate of obsolescence and the rate of change in the information technology field are not for the faint of heart.

Read more: Why Now Is the Time to Accelerate Digital

No. 2: Digital leaders invent, but also copy

This trait requires leaders to pick areas to innovate while also borrowing from other areas. Digital leaders are very selective about where they invent, which is generally in areas where they want to be better than everybody else. But they’re also excellent about copying because they are not trying to invent everywhere.

Digital leaders are clear on where they need to be exponentially better and where they can copy, since that’s not the reason people buy from the organization. It’s not effective to dabble in a lot of innovation efforts. Instead, leaders should be very clear in the areas it’s okay to copy.

No. 3: Digital leaders eschew industry boundaries

It can be a trap to consider the organization’s point of view, innovation possibilities, business model or digital transformation based on industry point of view. Many high-performing digital leaders, like Facebook, Amazon and Google, aren’t concerned with what industry they’re in. Rather, they’re concerned with what gap they can fill for customers. Their customer is at the center of what they do, not traditional industry boundaries.

Industry delineations like “financial services” can be unhelpful in determining new opportunities because they focus on what’s there, rather than what’s not there. The best innovation opportunities are often in the space between existing stuff. An industry lens does not help with filling that space with interesting new offerings. But a customer-needs view might.

No. 4: Digital leaders appreciate that innovation is more than just creativity

There is this notion that innovation and creativity are interchangeable, so if you have people with great ideas, boom, you get innovation. In reality, creativity is just one of five behaviors that you need to bring innovation to market. Creativity will generate the ideas, but you also need a challenging behavior to question, “Why would we do this? Is this really useful? Would someone buy this from us?”

Alongside challenging behavior, you’ll need collaboration to pull together disparate parts of the business and various disciplines. The fourth behavior is construction, which is the actual building part. Finally, you need people who will commercialize this innovation.

Does digital help you get to your destination? Because digital is not a destination 

To truly innovate and bring something to market, you’ll need all five of these behaviors, not just creativity. It’s important to audit your team and make sure you have skill sets in each area. It’s easy to overrepresent certain behaviors.

For example, during COVID-19 you might end up with more challenging behavior because people are simply fatigued, or your team might be great at coming up with a concept, and terrible at actually selling it on the market. Identify the gaps and pull in teams to fill them.

Read more: Digital Workplace Trends You Can’t Ignore

No. 5: Digital leaders build teams with high AQ

Intelligence quotient (IQ) and emotional quotient (EQ) are fairly well known, but fewer leaders measure the adversity quotient (AQ). AQ measures human resilience and the capacity to come back from being dealt a blow. High AQ lends itself to better employee retention that is critical for digital leadership, because the nature of digital transformation often disrupts the way people work by breaking rules and overturning old assumptions.

To increase their resilience in high-pressure situations, high-performance athletes are often coached to visualize the positive and the negative “What would it feel like to bite the gold?” But also, what are some of the things that could happen to throw me off my game? What if the lineup is broken up, or I get a splinter in my foot the day before? It’s envisioning all potential obstacles and “practicing how I might come back from those” that can help with resilience.

Build AQ by introducing a little bit of unexpectedness or coaching and exploring different challenges and changes. Give people tools to deal with obstacles so that they’re not thrown off their game entirely when things don’t happen exactly according to plan. This trait is more important than ever because resilience is what we need to sustain us through the long, chronic phase of the COVID-19 crisis.

No. 6: Digital leaders never consider digital to be the outcome

Digital is just a tool, it is just a means to an end. Nobody digitalizes just to be digital, just as nobody transforms just to transform. Be sure to clearly define and articulate the reason for digitalizing. If you digitalize without that kind of extra-clear hard-edged goal, you can end up in bad places.

For example, lots of people don’t like online grocery shopping because they like browsing the shelves or they find it annoying to have to click on every single item or they want to be surprised by something they hadn’t thought of and impulse buy.

To protect against “doing digital” just for the sake of being digital, consider what you’re trying to optimize or what are the desired outcomes. Maybe you want to make more money or increase margins or improve transparency or make things more secure. Does digital help you get to your destination? Because digital is not a destination.

No. 7: Digital leaders geek out on technology and so do their people

This is an often-underrated trait. Digital leaders actually do need to know a lot about technology to be able to evaluate where the opportunities lie. This is especially important when understanding what AI or other technologies can offer you or the possible impacts on the organization. However, it’s not just leaders who should embrace their inner geek, but also their people.

Consider asking employees what they do with their free time. Perhaps they are doing something cool with Raspberry Pi or maybe someone else regularly writes a technology blog on their own time, and they’ve never mentioned it in a corporate or a professional environment. This might surface interesting responses, especially for younger employees who may have more free time, that might be useful for digital initiatives.

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