Digital Leadership: Achieving Digital Transformation through Product Excellence

We’re witnessing a seismic shift as companies across sectors, be it health care, manufacturing, or finance, are embracing digital transformation. While the allure of “Big Data,” intuitive customer interfaces, and real-time services is undeniable, there’s more to this transformation than technology. And that’s where Product Leaders come into the scene.

Here’s the deal — more than just having the latest technology is needed. A genuine digital transformation demands the right mix of talent — individuals who are not just tech-savvy but can also adeptly manage the complexities of traditional organizational setups.

And I must admit, this talent is rare. Digital experts are not just in high demand, they’re becoming modern-day unicorns. But, there’s a nuanced challenge here. While many digital experts emerge from specialized, tech-focused companies, those who truly stand out in traditional firms often have a diverse set of skills. They understand team dynamics, sway decisions, and inspire teams to embrace a digital vision.

So, what’s the game plan? As Product Leaders, we must recognize that the key to successful digital transformation is a combination. It’s about blending our inherent organizational strengths with constantly updating digital knowledge. Search within your teams to discover individuals who may already have these skills. Enhance these internal talents by bringing in external specialists with specific digital expertise.

Leading digital transformation: Bridging the gap between digital natives and digital immigrants

In exploring the digital transformation scene, I’ve noticed a distinct two-fold dynamic. On one hand, we have the ‘digital natives’ — those who’ve grown up in the throes of technology, innately understanding its nuances. And on the other, there are the ‘digital immigrants’, professionals who’ve gracefully transitioned into the digital domain, bringing with them a wealth of traditional wisdom.

Born Digital vs. Transitioned Digital: Depth vs. breadth

When you look at our ‘digital natives’, it’s clear they’re cut from a unique cloth. Many are unafraid to dive deep, immersing themselves in specific roles that demand intense expertise. Their motivations often stem from a place of structure and precision. For them, the allure lies in the challenge of mastering a niche, with clear objectives guiding their paths. Their roles are sharply defined, and their affinity for detail is second to none. It’s as if the digital domain is their natural habitat.

Now, juxtapose this with the experienced executives from traditional backgrounds. Their strengths lie not in depth, but in the breadth of their experience. Their journey into the digital realm has armed them with a unique skill set. They’ve honed the art of influence — a vital trait when guiding teams and leading change in traditional companies. Their relational acumen allows them to connect dots that might seem disparate to many. Their social and empathetic abilities, often underrated, are precisely what make them so effective in integrating digital strategies within traditional frameworks.

Striking a balance for true digital success

Whether you identify more as a digital native or as someone transitioning into the digital scene, both sets of skills are invaluable. There’s a space for the depth of the specialist and the breadth of the generalist. It’s about understanding when to dive deep and when to cast a wider net.

On your path, whether you’re exploring new horizons or weaving digital approaches into established systems, remember that your distinct skills, experiences, and viewpoints are the catalysts for genuine innovation.

The DNA of digital leadership

Digital transformation reveals a rich array of leadership qualities, skills, and motivations. Let’s have a look into the contrasts and commonalities that define leaders from ‘born-digital’ backgrounds and those transitioning into the digital realm.

The defining traits of digital leaders

  1. Cultural dexterity: More than just cultural awareness, it’s the synergy of cultural knowledge, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal prowess. It’s about thriving, not just surviving, in any cross-cultural scenario.
  2. Learning agility: A hallmark of great leaders, this is the aptitude to extrapolate lessons from past experiences and adeptly apply them to novel scenarios.
  3. Emotional Intelligence: Beyond mere cognition, it’s the intuitive ability to resonate with, comprehend, and respond to the emotional ebb and flow of others.

Core competencies to master

  1. Thought: This involves a deep business acumen, the mental bandwidth to navigate intricate decisions, and the spark to birth the novel and transformative.
  2. Results: Focused on proactive initiation, robust execution, and a laser focus on performance metrics.
  3. People: An emblem of leadership, it revolves around nurturing collaborative relationships, leveraging diverse talent pools, and wielding influence effectively.
  4. Self: The art of authentic existence, coupled with the fluidity to adapt and the openness to embrace the unknown.

While the born-digital executives find their fuel in autonomy and freedom from constraints, their going-digital counterparts thrive on challenges — consistently pushing their boundaries, seeking growth, and quenching their thirst for knowledge.

A stark contrast is evident when we dissect the ‘self’ and ‘people’ competencies between these two cohorts. Our born-digital leaders score high on adaptability, navigating ambiguity, and rapid learning. While many among them do exhibit emotional intelligence, they often resonate more with the expert-driven, individualistic approach.

Opposite, the going-digital leaders shine in their people-centric competencies. They thrive in cultivating relationships, driving collaboration, resolving conflicts, and in the art of communication and persuasion. Their inherent capability to inspire and mold talent is commendable. In the vast arena of digitization, these leaders play pivotal roles, given their uncanny ability to build bridges and foster alliances.

It’s worth noting the commendable attributes of our digital natives. They possess a razor-sharp business acumen, coupled with a knack for strategic planning and resilience. They champion the ethos of experimentation, rapidly testing and iterating ideas. To them, failure is not a setback but a stepping stone to accelerated learning.

In the grand scheme of organizational success, there’s an evident need for both digital expertise and people-oriented leadership. Hence, companies should consider a hybrid strategy, blending the strengths of both these leadership archetypes. Such an approach not only enriches the organizational fabric but also mitigates potential friction between the independent spirit of the born-digital leader and the structured ethos of larger enterprises.

Cultivating digital transformation from within: Building bench strength

Every organization — be it a traditional behemoth or a budding startup — houses talent that either already resonates with the digital pulse or desires to sync with it.

Dive deep into the heart of your enterprise, and you’ll find a spectrum of leaders: some who effortlessly decode digital strategies, some whose passion for digital transformation is palpable, and yet others who, given the right environment, are ready to plunge into the digital abyss. Their varying degrees of readiness offer opportunities and challenges for our organizations.

The hallmark of digitally-ready leaders is their inherent zeal for experimentation. They thrive in dynamic environments characterized by rapid iterations, quick feedback loops, and the exhilarating rush of trial and error. They are the frontrunners, perpetually in motion, perpetually innovating.

I’d emphasize that learning agility is not just about adapting — it’s about harnessing past lessons, gleaning insights, and innovatively applying them to fresh challenges.

Yet, digital skills alone don’t carve out transformative leaders. To truly harness the power of their digital inclination, these internal leaders often need an enriched palette of leadership skills. They require broader horizons, heightened exposure to varied digital scenarios, and finesse in channeling results through collaborative tasks.

The call of the hour is a hybrid strategy — one that not only recognizes and nurtures the innate digital pulse of internal talent but also fosters a collective mindset that values tech-savviness, adaptability, and the relentless spirit of learning. It’s about shifting paradigms and looking at our workforce through a digital lens — a lens that celebrates change and innovation at every step.

Our endeavor should be two-pronged: In the immediate term, amplify our “digital transformation capacity” by identifying, assessing, and elevating those already on the brink of digital mastery. As we journey ahead, in the medium term, let’s elevate our “pure digital” capacity. Expose the core leadership to a plethora of digital experiences and challenges. As they evolve, our collective “transformation capacity” also witnesses an unprecedented surge.

Digital-readiness

Digital transformation isn’t just about executing planned moves but also about adjusting on the fly. Central to this evolution is the cornerstone of all contemporary business efforts: our talent, especially those who are flexible and digitally prepared.

Being digitally prepared isn’t just about having specific skills; it’s a combination of quick adaptability and flexibility. Fundamentally, it includes:

Mental agility

An agile mind is a fountainhead of critical thinking. It embraces complexity, discerns intricate patterns, and then translates these convoluted structures into digestible narratives for others. It’s this ability to weave the complex with the comprehensible that sets them apart.

Change agility

Beyond mere adaptability lies change agility — a voracious appetite for ideation, a relentless passion for continuous development, and a resilience to face the tumultuous waves of change.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of our internal talent landscape is imperative. It not only helps in fine-tuning our immediate strategies but also provides clarity on where our next steps should be focused.

The quest for an external digital skillset

While our internal pool of talent is invaluable, there are times when looking externally becomes a necessity to bridge gaps and elevate our digital expertise. However, the allure of the external world can sometimes be misleading.

We often fall into the trap of believing that every digital titan from renowned realms like Amazon or Google is our transformational savior. But tread with caution because many of these exemplary leaders, molded in the crucible of non-hierarchical, independent ecosystems, may find it challenging to navigate the intricate corridors of traditional corporate edifices.

The fit becomes paramount. The cultural compatibility, regional nuances, and the very essence of our organizational rationale should be synergistic with the ethos of these digital leaders.

Moreover, the younger brigade, while digitally adept, may still be on their path toward maturing as leaders. Their expertise in the digital domain is commendable, but leadership, as we all know, is an art refined over time, through challenges, experiences, and reflections.

A term we often encounter in our industry is “evangelists”. They are the torchbearers who guide businesses toward digital horizons, infusing the needed ethos and practices. However, while their passion is commendable, strategic, business-model creation requires a different skill set — a coveted ability that is both scarce and premium, especially in hubs like Silicon Valley.

Currently, top-tier digital talent is indeed in the driver’s seat. Their demand far outweighs their supply. With an increasing number of digital professionals diversifying their roles, the pool becomes even more condensed.

Conclusion

Achieving digital excellence isn’t a quick race; it’s an ongoing effort. As Product Management leaders, we have dual responsibilities: bringing in the right people and keeping them inspired and dedicated. By providing chances for advancement, cultivating an innovative environment, and understanding the occasional short-term nature of certain digital experts, we can pave the way for lasting success in this digital era.

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Carlos Gonzalez de Villaumbrosia

CEO at Product School — Global leader in product management training