ReimagineHR: In the Digital Age, What Does Great Leadership Look Like?

ReimagineHR: In the Digital Age, What Does Great Leadership Look Like?

Digitalization means much more for organizations than the adoption of digital technologies. It is a holistic change event that affects many fundamental pillars of how our businesses operate, including our people processes. One of these implications touches on how we select, develop, and deploy leaders, which has inspired a lot of concerned chatter about new “digital leadership” competencies that will make the most effective leaders of today and tomorrow dramatically different from those of the pre-digital era.

At Gartner’s ReimagineHR conference in Orlando on Monday, George Penn, VP and Team Manager at Gartner, facilitated a panel discussion with three experts in talent acquisition and development, drawing out their insights on how leadership really is changing in this new age, and which of these supposed changes are overhyped. Our panelists included Julie Loubaton, VP, Talent Acquisition at Keurig-Dr. Pepper; Christopher Lubrano, VP, Leadership and Organization Development at International Flavors and Fragrances; and Hari Abburi, VP, Global Talent at Dawn Food Products. Here are some key takeaways from Monday’s conversation:

Leadership fundamentals aren’t going anywhere

Foundational leadership qualities are still essential, Loubaton said. Businesses are, as always, looking for great strategic thinkers. Creativity, communication skills, and vision are as important as ever, the panelists noted, but these are not new. Lubrano also stressed the importance of fundamentals: Leaders today need a strong ethical foundation and an ability to connect with people and establish a sense of community among their team members. Again, these competencies have always been valuable elements of a managerial skill set. Strategic vision, creative thinking, and interpersonal skills remain table stakes for business leaders and most likely, always will.

So what is new?

Agility, adaptability, and the ability to lead fast-paced change are the key skills that are becoming more important for leaders in digital enterprise, the panelists said. Loubaton said her organization was looking for industry disruptors, who understand how to leverage new technology to upend traditional ways of doing business in their field and are not afraid to take that leap. Agile thinkers who are comfortable operating in a fast-paced, high-tech environment are becoming more valuable. Lubrano emphasized the importance of change management skills: creating urgency, maintaining focus, and clearing the path to new ways of working. The accelerating pace of change, Abburi added, means that while strategic planning skills are still fundamental, leaders now have to be able to formulate and execute strategies on a shorter cycle.

What’s different about digital-age leadership is often more about attitudes, behaviors, and mindsets than discrete skills and competencies. Design thinking and imagination are critical, Abburi noted; Loubaton said she was looking for people who are “nothing but creative.” Managers who are able to experiment, get their teams excited about change, fail fast, and learn from what does and doesn’t work are best positioned to lead in this new reality. Leaders need an expanded comfort zone to be able to operate in a world where the things they’re planning for don’t yet exist. They must be prepared to take bigger risks, but that also means new tools are needed to manage those risks responsibly. Among these tools, Loubaton identified a culture of shared accountability, diversity of thought, and a growing expectation that team members will give direct and candid feedback.

The business environment has changed

While digitalization is part and parcel of the changing business environment today, it’s not the only change taking place. Boundaries between industries are vanishing, Abburi pointed out, and new competitors are arising from unexpected places. HR can’t afford to get mired in competency models when the factors that will really determine a company’s survival are the imagination to redesign and reinvent its business model around the shifting landscape, he added. Again, speed and agility make a big difference here, as the business environment won’t wait until your next annual or quarterly planning session to change the rules of the game yet again.

Another consequence of this new environment is that leaders with more diverse experience are becoming more valuable. Abburi said his organization was looking for broad-based leadership, not specialized in one industry or domain. Lubrano also remarked on the need for breadth of competency: One of the metrics his company is using to assess the strength of their bench is to look at how many people are earmarked as potential successors to multiple roles. This emphasis on breadth also underscores the need for connector managers, Loubaton added. As work becomes more cross-functional, leaders will increasingly have to think and work outside their silos.