potential future leader
The next generation of digital leaders are in your midst — you just need to know how to identify them PHOTO: Alexandre Chambon

A new class of digital leaders is emerging. While tech-savvy, digital-first organizations have been quick to embrace them, larger organizations struggle to identify them, let alone train them and harness their strengths. 

Yet early indicators suggest the skills these emerging leaders bring can provide strong business results when nurtured and allowed to flourish. 

According to research by Oxford University, sponsored by SAP, only one in five of today's business leaders are considered "digital." This issue will only increase as firms fight to win the digital transformation race. 

Cultivate a Digital Mindset for Future Success

Emerging digital leaders have a work approach shaped by social media usage, access to information on any topic and collaboration with peers as a standard working practice. This experience fosters a digital mindset, and set of cultural values that set them apart from incumbent leaders. 

You won't necessarily find these people where you think, and there’s a strong possibility many aren’t in your current emerging/future leaders program. Such programs often still operate with old identification and skills frameworks — what we previously assumed were good leadership skills, such as command-and-control decision making. 

So what are the elements of a digital mindset?

Inclusivity over Hierarchy

Empowering influencers to harness their skills and lead agile teams and communities rather than relying on hierarchy, means more autonomy and accountability throughout the organization. Emerging digital leaders collaborate with the right people to get the job done, rather than just their managers or direct reports. 

Leadership Over Management

Emerging leaders understand organizations gain more by focusing on achievements rather than activities. They focus on creating the vision rather than micro-managing a team’s activities. 

Setting goals for a team and allowing them to decide how to achieve them without imposing preferred ways of working is a leap too far for many existing business leaders. 

Community-Led Decisions Over Centralized Command-and-Control

Creating open dialogue with communities, and allowing them to guide conversations, debates and decisions is the hallmark of this emerging leadership class. 

Because of their focus on inclusivity and collaboration, alongside an acknowledgement that they cannot possibly hold all of the important information all of the time, they engage more easily in community-led decision-making than their predecessors. 

Data-Driven Everything Over Knowing All the Answers

Gut-instinct has long been a key skill within senior leadership circles. However, in fast-moving digital organizations gut-instinct is no longer sufficient or appropriate.

Digital leaders take a lesson from start-ups, with their obsessive focus on being data-driven. A data-driven approach brings other benefits, including increased transparency, collaborating in the flow of work and bringing the customer voice from the edges of the organization to the center. 

Being Agile Over 'Doing' Agile

When faced with the need to be more agile, many organizations simply copy and paste agile principles and ways of working into their organization with little thought to the cultural change needed to make them embedded practices. 

For emerging digital leaders, agile is a mindset — it is about finding the best work rhythm for the organization, about how we see ourselves, how we relate to each other and how we embody the vision, mission and goals of the organization every day. 

Seek and You'll Find Leaders on Your Enterprise Social Network

Human resource teams are tasked with identifying this new breed of leader. 

Traditional models seek only leaders in the mould of the incumbents. Identifying the best and brightest in that model happens early, and not often. 

But what about emergent influencers? Those individuals who gain trust and respect over time? Who build communities around specialist subject areas and who help the team solve problems, yet never step forward to take the recognition?  

Identifying them requires a new system, one built of the biggest pool of untapped behavior-oriented data in your organization. Your enterprise social network.  

Beyond the simple community statistics offered by in-built reporting tools and social network analysis diagrams, there is a wealth of untapped potential. 

Define what data points an emerging digital leader would show — collaborative behaviors, community leadership or data-driven decision-making all have unique signatures in enterprise social network data that can point to emerging digital leaders. When connecting your enterprise social network data set to results-oriented data sets, you can start to understand the relationship between behavior traits of emerging digital leaders and tangible business results. 

How To Nurture Digital Leadership

Identifying emerging digital leaders is just the first step in the process. 

Those identified require incubating to grow new capabilities, and a safe space so that the organization's auto-immune system does not kill off new practices that look and feel unfamiliar. As individuals emerge across the organization, support them in building a sustainable ecosystem of networked contacts inside and outside of the formal structure. 

They need confidence they are not alone in their journey, and that they have the air cover they need to work at the known edges of the organization to build new products, services and ways of working to benefit the future firm. 

Emerging digital leaders often create digital workplace hub communities around themselves, focusing on a topic, product or service. By recognizing the value of these communities and giving them the techniques to flourish (including community management resources), you underscore the organization's commitment to a new leadership paradigm. 

Leading the organization of tomorrow is a responsibility that those leading today cannot fathom. Senior leaders must provide a safe space to try, fail, try again and succeed, playing a coaching and guiding role, which is at odds with the baptism by fire approach they themselves experienced. 

As market dynamics change faster and organizations feel increasing pressure from those who are digital by default, emerging digital leaders offer the organization a beacon of future hope.