Given it is Digital Leaders week I thought I would share something I have been thinking a lot about lately – what does a modern Digital Leader look like. This was inspired by recent conversations with clients but also this blogpost from James Stewart about ‘Internet-era’ CTOs.

The most senior role for technology or ‘digital’ leadership is inconsistently defined; it can be the CTO, CIO, CDO, CDIO and many other permutations as the default ‘most senior’ position to do with data, networking, applications and devices. The trouble is, what was required of yesterday’s leader and today’s are fundamentally different.

Once upon a time they ran a service for the business; a cost centre, to be kept in check. It was considered a utility, and nobody in the business wanted or needed to know much about it. Their stuff needed just to work, and not cost too much.

The modern leader must still do all that, yet ‘transform’ the organisation at the same time, and, in many cases, take a place on the management team. Arguably, being a classic CIO (looking after the cables and pipes with a team hidden in the basement) and being the CDIO (thinking about cloud and AI with teams in full view using shiny Macs) require entirely different skills. If there is consensus on how to deal with this, it is to get an inspirational front-person to take the lead and sell the vision to the users and the Board and have a less high profile ‘doer’ to keep the lights on.

The leader has to help the Board turn the organisation into a digital powerhouse. That means exiting legacy things that slow the business down (data centres, old apps, data silos, etc), and building trophy digital services – and often co-designing entirely new services/revenue streams. Often, this new role is lonely on the board, as cohorts will see it as a traditional CIO rebadged – and still a service to be delivered within 1-2% of turnover. With the exception of internet-era businesses (ie new, and with revenue very overtly pinned to digital channels), this misunderstanding at board level is prevalent.

So finding a ‘good’ Digital Leader is fiendishly difficult. Many are too techy (and so lose the board). Many are not techy enough (so lose the tech staff, and fail on tech-based decisions). Many can’t balance risk/reward in new technologies. Many fail to convince the organisation to move forward. And, of course, everybody wants somebody who’s done it before with a portfolio flushed with success. So prices have gone crazy. And tenures are short. When these individuals move on, they boast outwardly of their success – whilst the company they are leaving say ‘yeah, but he/she promised to do this, this, and this – and never did’.

Paradoxically, as the role has moved onto the board, the fiefdom it oversees has become weakened: there is no central authority on digital. Arguably, the CEO/CFO is in the data governance seat – not the CIO. And look at the incursions… with a swipe of a company credit card, anyone from marketing or HR or sales can spin up a new digital thing to serve their needs – often without any permission from anybody in the digital/IT domain. Things are devolving fast – and that can cause problems.

The role (really only 10 years old, and very new indeed as a board role) has become a bit like that of CEO, in that good CEOs know they can’t do everything, and never try. So they have a manifesto: maybe five things, to get done in a three-year stint. So that is not a bad starting point for a Digital Leader.

Here is my Digital Leader wish list:

  • Close to the CEO and CFO (or, if they are new, likely to be close): nothing happens when these relationships are weak
  • Energetic and engaging (being clever and right yet reticent doesn’t get very far)…
  • …but has to display tolerant leadership of legacy/slow staff
  • Hard enough to control the rogue nature of business heads with a taste for digital, but soft enough to make friends with them and work together
  • Agile mindset, but able to understand that businesses and boards aren’t really agile
  • Well informed on future state options – but not dismissive of the stuff that keeps the lights on
  • Informed by data and trends
  • Overtly affiliated to the nature of the business employing him/her (being one of the team, rather than a specialist, is so important to boards)
  • Focused on delivering rather than innovating
  • Prepared to buy rather than build (and source rather than create)
  • Very aware of risks/benefits analysis – but still prepared to take a punt
  • Capable of fast action, and accountable delivery
  • Close to the industry (which is where the innovation should come from)
  • A savvy customer (to stop the company buying crap, or being ripped off)

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