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Leading in a digital age

By Chris Underwood

March 12 2019 - We live in fast paced times, where no business can - nor indeed should - avoid the implications, challenges and opportunities that come with embracing digital transformation.

In this world of constant disruption, where speed, agility and innovation are key, the pressures on leadership teams from across industry are multi-faceted and growing. Harnessing digital transformation to respond to disruption and - indeed - to be a disruptor, requires a fundamental shift in business model, impacting everything from customer experience and operations to marketing and enterprise wide culture.

Leaders in this age of digital, data and disruption need to be agile, nimble, adaptable and capable of driving a culture of innovation and continuous improvement. They need to understand how digital technology and data science can shape their organisations and those of their competitors, be vigilant to the ever increasing risk from cyber crime, while still retaining the foundations of traditional leadership in terms of displaying emotional intelligence, a sense of purpose and realising the art of the possible.

Strong leadership is perhaps more important than ever in this age of disruption. Fujitsu's most recent Global Digital Transformation Survey found that leadership was one of the key success factors when it comes to digital transformation. The same survey also found that lack of leadership is a significant challenge for digital transformation. Worryingly, Deloitte's latest Global Human Capital Trends Report found that only 5% of companies feel they have strong digital leaders in place.

New leadership roles

Perhaps unsurprisingly, leadership roles have changed and developed in recent times to reflect the key role all things digital, data and cyber now play. Chief Data Officer, Chief Digital Officer, Chief Product and Information Officer, Chief Digital and Technology Officer, Chief Transformation Officer and Chief Information Security Officer - these are not roles that existed until recently, but are now joining the C-Suite and are certainly influencing the executive.

The traditional leadership team is rapidly evolving. The trinity of the CEO, CFO and COO still stands firm, however, new 'Chiefs' and triumvirates of CIO, CDO and CMO or CPO are forming and joining the table reflecting the hugely transformative role that both digital and data are playing across every industry and function of an organisation.

Gartner predicts that by 2019, 90% of large organisations will have a Chief Data Officer while research from PWC shows that 19% of top global companies now have a Chief Digital Officer, 60% of whom have been hired since 2015 and 40% of whom are also C-level members. The Chief Digital Officer role however will in a relatively short time cease to exist as there will be no such thing as a non-digital company.

Speaking the right language

While such change brings huge opportunities for growth, it also raises challenges. For example, for a recent Executive Search mandate, 78% of the CDOs we engaged with were in their first senior leadership role. As such, they will have limited experience of how to operate at executive level and speak 'executive' language or use it to obtain stakeholder buy-in.

However, there is much that both the 'old' and 'new' Chiefs can learn from each other. Dynamic, forward thinking businesses appreciate that Data and Digital now affect nearly every aspect of an organisation, at all levels, and can't be viewed solely as a technology issue - they offer a way to transform business operations for the better. With this come different approaches and new, agile ways of working. Chief Data and Digital Officers can help to introduce these working methodologies and further educate their peers about the power of Digital and Data, helping shape business strategies in order to deliver exceptional and innovative customer centric experiences.

In turn, more established board members can help those in their first leadership roles to develop the unique skill set needed at such a senior level. This includes not just excellent business acumen and a focus on solving business problems but also softer skills such as Emotional Intelligence (EQ), speaking the 'right' executive language and building collaborative networks.

About the Author

Chris Underwood is managing director of executive search, interim management and leadership development consultancy Adastrum Consulting which works with some of the world's best known companies to help them solve their digital transformation challenges.


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