Much has been written about becoming a digital organization. Less ink has been spilled on what it takes to become a digital leader. As it turns out, there’s a growing mismatch between how organizations are currently led and how they should be led.
This was the overall conclusion from our recent study with MIT Sloan Management Review to explore how the changing nature of competition, work and society is influencing the future of leadership. We surveyed 4,394 global leaders from over 120 countries, conducted 27 executive interviews, and facilitated focus group exchanges with next-gen emerging leaders worldwide. The findings serve as a warning for today’s leaders — as well as an invitation to reimagine leadership for the new economy.
Highlights of the study findings that concerned us include:
On the bright side, we identified a number of leadership teams that were paying attention to new ways of working and leading. By analyzing these responses, with the MIT Sloan School we’ve developed a framework for understanding leadership behaviors that work, as well as four mindsets that constitute the new hallmarks of leadership.
The majority of executives we surveyed are hampered by inertia and a reluctance to rigorously rethink their past leadership practices. We’ve identified three fundamental reasons why leaders aren’t as ready as they think to lead in the digital economy:
Fully 71% of our respondents believe they are personally prepared to lead in the digital economy. Yet this same group scores significantly lower when asked whether they possess specific digital skills, such as using analytics for decision-making or advocating for the use of advanced technology in the organization.
Many leaders are not as self-aware as they need to be, particularly in four key areas: strategic (failing to grasp the dramatic changes taking place in their industry), cultural (seeing change as an affront to cherished norms), human capital (outdated hiring and promotion practices) and personal (surrounding themselves with people who reinforce old-world thinking).
Many interviewed leaders expressed concern that they might lose employee trust due to trade-offs that emerge directly from the new world of work. For example, while speed is essential in the digital economy, an accelerated pace can make it difficult to maintain meaningful relationships. Failure to confront these dilemmas can result in lethargy, cynicism and mistrust.
Trailblazing leaders artfully balance leadership approaches that appeal to a new generation of employees, while honoring time-tested behaviors and attributes. From our survey results and executive interviews, we grouped current leadership behaviors into three categories: eroding, emerging and enduring.
The challenge is to cultivate emerging behaviors, combine them with the enduring ones, and proactively shed those behaviors whose value is eroding. Doing so is integral to crafting a leadership framework that is right for the times.
Of course, few — if any — leaders are competent across the full set of emerging and enduring attributes. That’s why the primary leadership challenge isn’t simply to develop a set of competencies but to embrace a new mindset that anchors, informs and advances desired behaviors. By changing their attitudes and beliefs about what leadership looks and feels like, leaders can produce behavior change that lasts over time.
We identified four distinct yet interrelated mindsets that together constitute the new hallmarks of leadership in the digital economy: producers, investors, connectors, and explorers. The narrative thread connecting these mindsets is that they intentionally align efforts to bring out the best in colleagues and collaborators while measurably enhancing outcomes for customers, communities, our planet and shareholders.
Producer mindset: The producer mindset combines a focus on customers with a focus on analytics, digital savviness, execution and outcomes. Producers use analytics to accelerate innovation to address shifts in customer preferences and improve customer and user experiences.
Here are a few recommendations on ways to become a trailblazer and cultivate trailblazers in your organization:
Creating the conditions for success starts with setting the tone and developing the mindsets that constitute the foundation of the new leadership playbook. Successful leaders are the ones who don’t just see what the future might bring; they create it.
For the full report, including anecdotes and interview outtakes, please see “The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age” (registration required). For additional insights, please visit the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work.