Are you a Digital Winner? This was the question posed by economists at Oxford Economics in its Leaders 2020 survey, which polled over 4,000 executives from around the world. Their aim was to study the impact of strong leadership on success in the 21st century digital economy, and the findings might come as a surprise.

While strong and dynamic leadership was, of course, seen as vitally important in these days of constant change and development, the consensus was that only around one in six executives are getting it right, and qualify as digital winners in today’s economy. Structures, hierarchies and mindsets firmly stuck in the 20th century are still the norm, and those prepared to move with the changing management dynamic of the digital age are in the minority.

This implies a world of opportunity for managers with a clear vision and the ability to evolve their mindsets with the changing times. Let’s take a closer look at the whys and wherefores, to see what is involved in joining the winning team.

The research

Oxford Economics teamed up with SAP to survey over 4,100 executives. The respondents represented a broad range of industries and functions, and were based in diverse locations all around the world. The survey asked a variety of questions regarding decision making, diversity, digital awareness, change management and touched on a number of other topics.

The conclusions were hard to ignore — the vast majority of respondents felt that they and their management are not up to the task of effectively managing their business in the digital age. This is quite a damning indictment, but before we look at the keys to success, it is worth taking a look to see what everyone else is doing so wrong.

A changing dynamic in a static structure

Every executive team knows that the digital revolution has brought massive change to businesses. The problem is, most of them do not realise just how much. On seeing an emerging gap, CEOs and non-execs appoint a Digital Development offer at executive level in the hope that this will make everything all right.

Bringing in digital expertise is one thing, but to introduce it in its own silo, appended to the existing organisational structure is to miss the point. The new digital age has transformed those very structures, and technology informs and shapes every step of decision making and management.

The effect is not exclusive to the hushed corridors of power either, but is felt throughout the organisation. Technology dictates the way information is shared, and it shapes the dynamics of teams and the working practices of every employee throughout the organisation.

Take a step back and think about how a successful company operated in the 1970s. Look at the information it had available, the way this was shared and cascaded, and the working practices that were in place. You will see a hierarchical structure where knowledge is power — it flows from the top through working teams and departments.

Compare that with today, where information floods in from every direction to every employee, faster than we know what to do with it. The teams are likewise scattered, communicating via Skype and Slack from around the world while working on shared, cross-departmental projects, using cloud-based software.

Everything has changed beyond recognition except, perhaps, the organisational structure and working practices.

Keys to success

The message is clear. Right now, there is a distinct lack of digital leaders who have the tools, skills and mindset to successfully navigate a company to greater success in the digital age and motivate the 21st century workforce. This is not a dry, academic opinion from someone on the outside looking in, but the considered view of those at the coalface, in the heart of the modern organisations themselves.

What, then, of the lucky few in the 16 per cent who can be described as digital winners? It would appear that they have the world at their feet, as most companies have glaring gaps in their succession plans and development programmes, whether they are prepared to admit it or not. So how can we join them?

The research identified a number of critical factors that set digital winners apart from those stuck in outdated 20th century practices. The most important was an attitude of openness and inclusivity. In the rapidly changing, information-rich, digital world, it no longer makes sense for leaders to rely on their gut instincts to make decisions. Digital winners use the collective intelligence of the organisation to shape strategic plans and actions.

They also eschew the hierarchy, simply reaching out within the organisation to the right person for the right job, rather than exclusively working with their direct reports. This approach embodies the “new business start-up” mentality of a flat structure and is evidence of what can be achieved without the weeds of the past wrapped around a company’s propellers.

Of course, a flat organisation might not be practical in every organisation, particularly one with thousands of employees, but the spirit of inclusive leadership means putting the task first and the hierarchy last — empowering everyone to play their role.

Rotational Leadership

One interesting conclusion drawn from the research was that today there is a growing distinction between leaders and managers. An effective line manager might be highly talented in reporting and enforcing policy, but this needs to be distilled from the leadership skills necessary for success in the digital age.

Rotational leadership gives the team the opportunity to pick the leader for a given project, rather than vice versa, and emphasises the importance of the organisation working towards a common goal through effective and connected teamwork.

Winners, not heroes

The days of the individual hero are behind us, and today’s successful leaders are those quickest to understand that.

The companies that will thrive are the ones that are prepared to embrace change and adapt to the new dynamic, and some big names are beginning to wake up and smell the coffee. Nestle and Bosch are two organisations that have a community of change agents known as “digital guides,” whose role is to involve the entire organisation in transformation.

It is a brave new world, and the future looks bright if you’re a digital winner.

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