Leadership in a Digital Era

The changes brought about by the Internet over the last twenty years are nothing compared to what is coming over the next few years. A convergence of disruptive technologies, combined with the rapid emergence of a new generation of constantly connected, empowered customers and employees (Gen C), is threatening to reshape markets faster than at any time in history.

No industry, no organisation is immune from the threat of being disrupted; just ask your local taxi driver (Uber) or Guest House owner (Airbnb). With labour markets being transformed by artificial intelligence and automation, no individual is immune. 375 million people worldwide may have to switch occupation category by 2030 according to one study (McKinsey, 2018).

Transforming digitally is the number one business challenge facing organisations today. Nothing else comes close. Staying relevant in a digital world is the number one personal challenge we all face.

Digital Leaders STILL Urgently Required

While there is growing acceptance of the need for our organisations to #adaptordie, do we have the digital leaders to drive change? Do our organisations have the leadership capabilities to succeed in a digital era?

Recent research from Capgemini would suggest not – “Understanding Digital Mastery Today: Why Companies are Struggling with their Digital Transformations (2018).”

Based on responses from more than 1,300 business leaders, representing 750 organisations, the study concluded that over 60 per cent of companies lack the digital capacities to drive transformational change. In most of the organisations surveyed, transformation was still at a nascent stage, with only 39 per cent having the digital or managerial (35%) capacities required to implement successful change.

Source: Capgemini, 2018

The Capgemini findings are supported by our own research in this area.

Since April of this year, senior managers representing 200 organisations from 20+ countries have attended our Digital Leadership Masterclasses.  A live Interactive Polling Tool was used to provide high level insight into the State of Digital Transformation 2018 covering the Americas, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Key headline findings are as follows:

  • Eighty-six per cent of executives agreed that their industry/their organisation is under threat of being disrupted. Twenty-five per cent stated that ‘big bang’ disruption is taking place NOW.
  • A broad range of technologies and societal changes were identified as having a disruptive impact including mobile connectivity; social media; the cloud; big data & predictive analytics; Internet of Things/Industry 4.0; digital workplaces; artificial intelligence, automation & robotics; 3D printing (additive manufacturing); wearables; augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR); autonomous vehicles/drones; and the Blockchain.
  • Despite growing awareness of the need for change, fewer than one-third of participants agreed that digital transformation had ‘already become mission critical’ for their organisation.
  • Fewer than 25 per cent of respondents claimed to have an agreed digital vision and strategy guiding the future direction of change.
  • Almost two-thirds of the organisations polled (62%) stated that they were facing a digital leadership crisis ‘at least to some extent’.

The Key Traits of a Successful Digital Leader.

Successful digital transformation is first and foremost about changing people, organisation and culture. Technology is just the facilitator of change.

Consequently, a new breed of senior executive is required - leaders of change for the digital era; leaders combining high level business knowledge, experience and understanding with the ability to develop and implement digital transformation strategies fully aligned with and supportive of agreed business outcomes. Leaders who possess both the confidence and personal skills to drive digital supported organisational and people change.

Successful leaders of change for the digital era require a broad range of hybrid skills and experience as shown in the tag cloud below. ‘Knowing about IT stuff’ is no longer enough.

Source: Based on 200 respondents to our Workshop Polling Tool.

Based on the above, we would suggest ten key traits of an effective leader of change for the digital era:

  1. Hyper awareness of the external digital landscape, the disruptive technologies and associated societal changes reshaping industry.
  2. The ability to develop a clear digital vision and strategy fully aligned with and supportive of agreed business goals and objectives.
  3. Identification and prioritisation of digital initiatives combined with strong digital governance skills to prevent a proliferation of uncoordinated activity.
  4. The ability to win senior management/board support, commitment and resource to drive organisational transformation.
  5. Strong project and programme management skills. The ability to deliver change ‘on time within budget’; the tenacity to keep transformation programmes on target.
  6. Change management competencies. The personal skills and empathy to overcome organisational, people and cultural barriers to change.
  7. Hybrid management skills (technology AND people) to break down organisational silos, restructuring the organisation around customer journeys.
  8. A strong focus on performance measurement but with the ability to be flexible depending on changing circumstances.
  9. Informed decision-making based on actionable insight derived from data and advanced analytics.
  10. A future looking perspective to cope with the rapid pace of digital change taking place.

Given the strong link that exists between digital maturity and future competitiveness, these are worrying statistics.

Even more worrying is the sharp decline in firms’ general readiness for digital transformation compared to an identical study carried out six years ago - Capgemini Consulting and MIT Sloan’s 2012 report, “The Digital Advantage: How Digital Peers Outperform Their Peers in Every Industry”; a report which provided the basis for the best-selling ‘Leading Digital‘ book.

Despite the huge investments currently taking place in digital transformation initiatives, set to exceed $2 trillion by 2021, most organisations today feel less equipped with the right digital leadership skills compared to 2012. Many current initiatives will fail.

The challenge for organisations is to develop leaders of change for the digital era.


Our next ‘Leading Digital’ Executive Masterclass, in association with the University of Edinburgh Business School, takes place on the 4th/5th October, 2018. Full details can be found here - Digital Leaders Masterclass.

If interested in coming along, please do not hesitate to contact me for an informal chat.

As always, comment and feedback are very welcome.

Dr Jim Hamill


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