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Don’t Lose Sight of Competence and Connection in a Digital World

By Leah Clark, Director, Strategy & Development

It’s no surprise to anyone that digital transformation is likely to continue with increasingly profound impact on how organizations conduct business.  This disruption is massive, requiring new rules for operating in a digital world as well as changing how employees and customers want to interact with organizations. As a result, businesses need to shift to a new way of working.

A recent Harvard Business Review study indicated that “70% of CEOs believe they do not have the right skills, leader, or operating structure to adapt.” As organizations evolve and try to figure out how to shift to a digital business leadership model—from recruiting and sales to customer service and internal communications—what are the implications for the leaders of these organizations?  How does leadership change in a digital age? And what skills will become most critical to lead successfully?

For years, BlessingWhite’s point of view has been that strong leadership comes down to two things—competence and connection.  And, despite the pace of change that defines a digital world, the foundation of competence and connection is still very necessary for all leaders to be successful.  At the same time, how competence and connection take shape for each individual digital leader will look different. Which begs the question, “Does the digital age change how leaders engage, connect, and lead employees?”

Competence in Digital Business Leadership

Competent leaders understand what is expected of them, know themselves, and understand the business. Individuals who lead with competence focus on organizational success and business results.  How does this understanding shift in an age of digital leadership?

Acknowledge that massive change is underway, spurred by digital transformation.

Step one is simple awareness.  Leaders can’t lead as they did five or ten years ago, with a blind-eye toward the impact of digital transformation.  We are in a new age with new rules.  A competent leader is one that demonstrates they are attuned to these changes even if they haven’t figured out exactly how to respond to them.  Imagine a leader today who fails to understand the importance of social channels on relationships.  How competent would that leader be perceived to be by the socially charged employees they lead? While a master’s degree in digital leadership isn’t a requirement, a willingness to embrace digital is.

Listen at scale.  A competent leader listens.  A digital leader listens at scale.  Listening at scale is an acknowledgment that, in today’s digital age, a leader can hear from hundreds — if not thousands — of people at once without ever being in front of them. Digital business leaders can hear directly from individuals without the feedback being subject to someone else’s interpretation. Without waiting for the information to be shared in a dashboard or report, leaders can turn quickly to social media and get a pulse on how their employees feel about the culture, salary ranges, leadership or professional development of their organization.  And they don’t need a formal report or a survey to do so.

Filter appropriately.  A competent leader is able to take in data quickly, from a variety of sources, and use it to make decisions.  At the same time, it’s important to filter the massive amount of information coming their way to assess what is useful and what is just noise.  In a digital age, this ability to filter information is even more important.  Looking at not only what is said, but also what information gets shared, is a critical part of this process.

Manage your reputation and the message.  A competent leader is strategic in managing their own messages. Digital business leaders don’t simply use and view information in a voyeuristic way.  They jump in and communicate about themselves and their company’s brand.  Today’s technology platforms allow them to do that in a very personal way.  Without the formality of a sanitized press release, digital leaders can share who they are and how they feel. A competent leader understands that they need to manage the message with consistency and congruency, but how they do it has everything to do with their connection skills.

Connection in the Age of Digital Leadership

Connection in the age of digital business leadership doesn’t refer to how many people are in your LinkedIn network. Connection for a digital leader—and all leaders—is about building trust, establishing relationships, and appreciating individual differences.  But how do you connect and “lead with your heart” when that heart beats with a digital pulse?

Read the environment.  We say good leaders are able to read their environment by situation sensing.  They can collect and interpret the information around them, even if information is attained through intuition.  Leaders who have these skills are able to uncover less obvious signals and sense what is going on.  Digital leadership will require the same intuitive abilities to read what’s happening in a social or online environment to understand what employees are feeling, the impact of their comments on recruiting talent, the choices they are making, and the reputation of their company and brand.

Share authentically. Digital social leaders understand the power of sharing—both personally and on behalf of their company.  When any leader shares more about themselves, they forge stronger relationships with the people they lead.  BlessingWhite, and authors Goffee and Jones, talk about authentic leadership as “knowing and showing yourself more…with skill.” With public and private personas colliding online, mastering the art of sharing appropriately takes new meaning.

Social leaders understand that a brand’s social media presence is more than the responsibility of the marketing department.  It means you, as a leader and as an individual, leverage online platforms to share about yourself personally.  In this way you connect with others, understand more about them and, appropriately, reveal more about yourself.  This process builds trust and trust is the most important foundational building block in strong leaders.

Establish relationships.  Digital business leaders leverage social platforms to establish one-to-one relationships in ways previously not available in a scalable way. No longer confined to visiting a showroom floor or store, digital leaders can now interact with customers in a socially enabled way.  Consider the leader who scans online customer reviews and responds personally with a commitment to higher quality products or a better experience.  While the goal is not to turn leaders into a deluxe customer service center, when done selectively, establishing more direct relationships with customers can help connect leaders to their end consumer.  Likewise, the digital leader that participates in socially geared sharing on Facebook, Instagram, or Yammer becomes instantly more accessible to their employees.

Communicate in a way that inspires.  Digital leaders will find ways to share their vision and connect people to that vision.  Through both words and imagery, a digital leader has the opportunity to paint a picture of where they want to take their company and they will be forced to simplify that vision and be more transparent in their communication. A social and digital business leader is not the sanitized images you see in an annual report—they are real and present every day in creating compelling communications that help others envision the future.  Digital and social leaders understand the importance of using multiple channels to reach employees and reinforce their messages. The elimination of physical and geographic boundaries, allows a social-digital CEO to reach individuals across different departments or time zones with ease.

Strong Digital Leaders Do What All Strong Leaders Have Done for Years

Digital leaders understand the power of the information they are getting and the messages they are sharing.  But digital business leadership isn’t about hiding behind data or social media. It’s about understanding if the information you are receiving is telling you about what your employees (or customers) are thinking, what drives them, and what’s important to them.  It’s also about sharing in a more unfiltered and authentic way.

We look forward to exploring digital leadership and its links to talent recruitment, authentic leadership, communication, innovation and many other topics.  As a start, we think it’s important to remind ourselves that the need for competence and connection does not disappear with the rise of digital leadership.  In fact, it becomes even more critical.  Great digital leaders will do what great leaders have done for years — connect with the mind and lead with the heart.

About the Authors

Leah Clark
Leah Clark is a leadership development professional with over 28 years of experience in her field. She has a unique perspective on the mindsets and skillset that are critical to leadership success and brings that perspective to her coaching and consulting. Leah’s clients benefit from her collaborative approach to crafting a well-connected and thoughtful leadership development strategy. Her company, LeaderConnect, makes meaningful connections for leaders and leadership development professionals around the issues that matter most.

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