The Digital Leader: Core Competencies For A New Era
October 7, 2020
The concept of “work” is more fluid than ever: How we work, where we work and what we expect from work are in flux, and five different generations are working together. These dynamics present business leaders with complex challenges, made more acute by the ongoing impacts of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Chief among these challenges is adapting to a more remote and geographically dispersed workforce. Indeed, in a recent Aon pulse survey of more than 2,000 human resources leaders and professionals, 71 percent of respondents globally said their companies are actively investing in tools and technologies to support remote collaboration. This finding, among other data points in the survey, suggests remote working, staggered schedules and online meetings, all brought in to help control the pandemic and keep employees safe, are here to stay.
“A new era of workforce transformation is upon us, and it’s accelerated by COVID-19,” says John McLaughlin, chief commercial officer for Aon’s talent assessment practice. “To manage fundamental shifts of this nature, successful leaders need to think on the fly and focus on boosting the agility and resilience of their workforces.”
They’ll also need to be able to balance risk with innovation and adopt new methods to communicate with and coach employees across various work arrangements.
“When you put all of this together, one thing is very clear: The future leader is a digital leader,” says McLaughlin. “Digital leaders are characterized by the same fundamentals that all of us must have to succeed in the digital world: agility, curiosity and the drive to find new ways to do things better.”
According to the Aon pulse survey, 84 percent of survey respondents globally view workforce agility — the ability to quickly move employees into new roles or areas of the organization to support changing business needs — as either very important or extremely important to the future success of their organizations. But there is some way to go: Only 39 percent of survey respondents view their workforces as very agile or extremely agile.
“This workforce agility gap — between what employees and teams can handle today versus what will be required of them in the near future — is significant and represents a major challenge for companies looking to reshape their business and human capital strategies,” said Pete Bentley, chief commercial officer for Aon’s Human Capital Solutions business. “This gap is remarkably consistent across regions and industries.”
People leaders are vital to creating and facilitating this change. Today’s dynamic workplace calls for a new type of leadership.
THE DIGITAL LEADERSHIP MODEL
“A high-quality leadership assessment model doesn’t just identify traits that are needed to lead right now — it looks for the timeless leadership traits that leaders will need to move their companies forward despite the volatile, complex and uncertain nature of today’s business climate,” says Tarandeep Singh, head of Assessment Solutions for Asia Pacific and Middle East at Aon. “Aon’s research narrows it down to three cornerstones: agile mindset, leading change and driving business.”
Those cornerstones are fueled by key behaviors, and the most successful leaders in this new era will demonstrate the following:
Model agility and flexibility: Guiding employees effectively and helping them thrive in the face of uncertainty will require leaders who can be flexible, embracing sudden change and adapting as needed. Successful leaders will be able to make the necessary changes and inspire confidence in employees that the next new course is the right one.
“Change has always been a constant,” says McLaughlin. “In the new workplace, leaders must not only cope with change but manage it. They must be resilient and help build resilience in their teams, supporting workers as they navigate changes and the evolution of their jobs.”
For leaders making decisions affecting their businesses and their employees, an essential skill will be the ability to make decisions with incomplete information, says McLaughlin.
Champion humility and collaboration: Successful leaders will recognize what they don’t know and rely on those around them to fill in any information gaps — and expect the same from their team members.
“As the speed of innovation and change increases, leaders will need to find the right balance between collaborative decision making, accepting input from others and the speed of decision making,” says McLaughlin.
Model diversity, equity and inclusion: According to a recent Aon pulse survey of human resources leaders, 86 percent of respondents globally said their ability to attract and retain diverse employees and create an inclusive culture was very important or extremely important to improve workforce agility.
“Creating an inclusive culture starts with leaders being willing to do the work of educating themselves and asking questions. What is it like to be someone other than me on my team? What actions can I take to increase the diversity on my team?” says Kelli Clark, vice president of global culture and change at Aon. “Leaders can then call upon their teams to do the same. At a basic level, it’s about creating equality of experience for everyone. And holding each other — peers, team members, leadership — accountable when we don’t live up to those values.”
Stay curious: “Digital leaders seek out and explore possibilities, whether that’s technology, products or market research. And they do it to find business opportunities, improve processes or simply to learn,” says McLaughlin.
One other important balancing act for effective leaders will be finding the right balance between risk and innovation.
“Successful leaders will look beyond their own organizations’ ecosystems and the current reality,” says McLaughlin. “They look at what customers value and go beyond that to consider how partners can collaborate to build a stronger customer offering.”
Coach — not manage — employees: Digital leaders will recognize the sometimes differing needs of remote workers and those in the office, as well as the challenges facing virtual teams. They’ll be open to using various tools and approaches to managing, communicating with and motivating employees, all while accommodating differences among them.
“This is the end of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ plan for developing employees,” McLaughlin says.
Ultimately, the successful leader will be more coach than manager, steering the team through challenges and helping guide the members of the team as they travel along their own career journeys, says McLaughlin.
CULTIVATING DIGITAL LEADERS
How do companies find, recruit and retain these digital leaders? One way of selecting external and internal candidates is through assessments focusing on the qualities of digital leadership.
“The data from personality assessment questionnaires can help identify which people are most able to change, which people can learn faster and better, which are more curious, and which are more agile or resilient.” McLaughlin says. “This information can help companies identify future leaders and change champions and build formal or informal centers of excellence.”
Businesses will also train employees to help them develop digital leadership skills.
“Companies getting this right are looking for talent everywhere internally and broadening the definition of potential,” says McLaughlin. “Current employees are enabled to learn and upskill on their own, creating a continuous cycle of digital-ready talent and, by extension, leaders. That is the future of talent development in a remote environment — organizations enabling career ownership and learning journeys to be owned by employees.”
McLaughlin says some of the workplace changes brought on by COVID-19 were actually ones many organizations had been considering as they imagined what their businesses might look like in the future. The pandemic has catapulted us forward by three to five years, he says.
“Change has rarely been more accessible for many organizations,” says McLaughlin. “Leaders with the right skills for this time will help their organizations make the right changes successfully, while helping their teams embrace those changes and succeed in the new environment.”
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