Digital leaders: who are they and what do they need?
As part of our work on helping leaders understand digital, we’ve been talking to people who we identified as being ‘digital leaders’ but for whom this was still a relatively new identity.
The people we interviewed for this part of our user research so far are all senior leaders in the social sector, in government or charities.
We had two key questions going into this discovery work:
- What journey have people been on to date?
(What motivated them to start some kind of digital transformation work What challenges have they faced? What’s worked for them?)
- What kinds of resources do they access to learn about digital, and who do they go to for advice and support?
Here’s what we’ve learned so far.
Motivations for digital transformation
People wanted to understand more about digital because they could see the changing context outside their organisation.
Citizens and consumers also have different expectations of the (now-digital) services they use. There was a sense of not wanting to be left behind, and also of needing to adapt to keep their business relevant and sustainable.
“No charity is ever going to have enough people or money to go around. We are selling ourselves — and the people we are trying to help — very, very short if we don’t use all possible methods to reach people, help people, join them up to one another.”
Another motivation to embrace digital as a leader was wanting to be a workplace that could attract talent — by demonstrating how it is adapting to change, and reflecting internally what is happening in the world outside.
“It doesn’t necessarily give us a competitive advantage in terms of our customers but it helps us attract talent. That gives us a competitive advantage. It means we are always questioning and challenging and trying to find a better way of doing things, and technology is one of the tools to do this. “
Lastly, there was a discomfort about relying too much on external input, especially expensive consultancy services that haven’t always proved to really embed change or build internal capacity.
“What everyone does is get PwC or KPMG in and then say they are a digital organisation. They spend an absolute fortune on big consultants who tell them what they need to do, and yet they can’t even put together a sentence about what that means for them. I don’t want to do that. I want an alternative.”
Challenges in digital leadership
Not knowing where to start
It was a difficult for people to know where to start, and how to orientate themselves in understanding digital — let alone getting to grips with digital leadership.
“The challenge for me is knowing what [digital] is. It sounds a bizarre thing to say.”
Lacking time and space
Most people in senior positions have huge demands on their time. It’s important to be able to find the most useful information quickly, or to be connected to the right person, first time.
It’s not just the time pressure that’s a challenge, but also the cognitive space that’s required for learning too.
“You are dealing with daily problems, and work and delivery, and then you also have to learn these new terms and language. It’s really hard to make space for that.”
What works in digital leadership
Connecting with peers
Anyone leading change or trying to do things in a new way can feel isolated. Finding peers who are also trying out similar activities or learning the same thing was (and is_ important for the people we spoke to.
“I would have found it so helpful to have somewhere I could meet with others and learn with them. I’d sometimes take myself off into a dark corner and scream!”
Demonstrating new practice
Avoiding isolation in how work is done is also important. Openly demonstrating new practice helps the rest of the team or organisation to see and understand its value.
“Don’t do things in isolation. I have an amazing team and colleagues but it wasn’t sustainable for us to run it as a separate service … and I didn’t get to that soon enough. We need to be doing what we are doing as part of the whole organisation now. I needed to spend more time bringing colleagues on board, and spending time to understand what they thought we were trying to do.”
Getting board buy-in
Selling the new approach and strategy into the board was really important for protecting the new practice when it was in its infancy. It helped to ensure a realistic amount of resource was allocated to it over time.
Even if it is hard to get every board member on side, just finding one or two advocates among them was really useful.
“It’s much easier when the board is involved and interested, and has people on it who understand digital.”
Investing in teams
For a new digital culture to spread and be adopted beyond the leadership, it’s key to invest in building the capacity of the team.
Often new people are brought into the organisation to support existing teams in kickstarting a digital transformation. Making new people or external consultants responsible for allocating time to sharing and learning helps to embed the approach, and creates all kinds of other value too.
“Suddenly you could see talent in the organisation because they were using new tools. People who had been very quiet and suddenly they are blogging. People were talking about how they were working. The culture became more reflective and exploratory.”
Admitting not knowing
When a digital leader grows and diversifies their team as part of spreading a new digital culture, they can get left behind.
New talent might know more, especially really technical recruits who are very likely to have expertise that a digital leader wouldn’t necessarily be expected to understand.
What’s important is that people at all levels — including leaders — stay open to knowledge, and can admit when they don’t know or understand things.
“I feel very lucky that I work with a great team of people who will say to me, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about’ and they explain things to me. I’ve worked to create that culture and that feels more important than knowing the tech stuff in great depth.”
What’s shaping what we’ll design
Access to useful resources
People need resources, whether this is materials to help advocate their approach to their board, or access to easily findable appropriate content when they need to know what to do about something relating to digital leadership.
“It would be really useful if you helped emerging digital leaders to write up and share their knowledge and learning.”
“I think it would be a great idea if there was a way to get insights and information about this.”
Help with translation
Even with access to great information and advice, it is still not always clear how to act on it.
People spoke about not knowing what some people meant in digested blog posts they read, and that having a meetup type group to help with translation or to be able to fearlessly ask, “What does that mean?”
“It would be good to be able to meet people who are on different stages of this journey, to help people know who they can ask about X or Y, or what they need to know at a certain time.”
Finding the right people
It’s hard to know who to speak to about what. People need help with knowing which are the right organisations to talk to. They need to know who to read, who else is working in this field, and the different types of expertise that might be available to them.
“It would be great to know at the different points of the journey who you could go and see.”
Recruitment is also an issue, and help is needed in knowing who to hire, how to benchmark salaries, and how to write role descriptions, among other things.
One of the things we’re going to do do next is an experience map, so that we can start to plot out what types of support, information and advice people might along a digital leadership journey.
We know this isn’t a linear journey and that it’s also unlikely to have an end point!