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Senior leadership
skills and the new,
digitally savvy
executive

Author: Megan Williams

This past year has pushed demands on senior leadership skills to unprecedented levels. While many executives have survived and even thrived the challenges presented during 2020, in the coming decade the C-suite will face even greater pressure to enter a new era of leadership—one where digital upskilling is essential to attain the rank of a "digitally savvy" executive and take advantage of emerging and unexpected opportunities.

Where's the value in digital upskilling?

With so much change in play, many leaders might question (or at least delay prioritizing) the value of digital upskilling. But if anything holds true in the world of technology, it's that time is opportunity. Cultivating digital literacy across your leadership holds numerous potential benefits, from talent acquisition and an improved employee experience to competitive advantage.

But there's additional value to be uncovered. Gartner has highlighted the impact of COVID-19 in accelerating digital transformation—most importantly, “a lack of digital skills could jeopardize companies with misaligned talent plans.”1 The accelerated pace of change has left many organizations struggling to come to terms with the notion that digital technology skills are no longer simply the domain of  IT or traditional technology roles.

To address new challenges in remote and asynchronous communication, productivity and cross-team collaboration these skills need to be marbled through functions and strategically coupled with soft skills. But if executive leadership misses this boat, they won't be prepared to deploy the correct level of skills or align skill types to address fast-moving change—for example, selecting and transitioning to tools and services that allow teams to improve communication and collaboration across platforms, devices and applications to increase productivity and efficiency.

The future of senior leadership skills

To understand your path forward, it's critical to identify the traits that embody a digitally savvy executive.

Clarity in setting objectives

The ability to clearly set objectives is a mainstay of senior leadership skills, but as the world has become more complex, so has this trait. Consider the challenge of maintaining clarity in objectives through a pandemic and beyond and at the same time communicating them to your workforce all with the goal of fostering productivity, cohesion and collaboration. In the last year, many organizations' core operations have been turned upside down, requiring a completely new strategic plan. Tomorrow's digitally savvy executive will be able to define and communicate a clearly defined set of objectives and strategy even as new challenges emerge.

Centering people

As organizations venture deeper into tech-centered territory, people-focused skills will only become more important. Depending on the industry, this can range from centering the customer experience to prioritizing patient outcomes and even driving community impact. The value from a leadership perspective lies in communicating efficiently to keep your strategy and your people focused on the human impact of their work even as you encourage deeper investment in tech tools and your own digital upskilling.

Data leadership

Data engineers and scientists are becoming increasingly key players in organizational functions. At the same time, data drives the story that informs your strategic decisions. Tomorrow's digital leader will be comfortable not only using but also directing data as part of their organization's core competency.

Comfort with technology

Microservices, artificial intelligence (AI), application programming interface (APIs), security, cyber security mesh—chances are you're already hearing some of these terms bubbling up. Digitally savvy leaders will go beyond awareness and be able to identify and confidently activate the emerging technologies they need to push innovation where necessary.

Communication and leadership

An increasingly complex world demands increasingly sophisticated communication strategies. Digitally savvy leaders will find their communication benefiting from empathy and motivational skills, and these will be founded on a familiarity with the particular challenges your people face.

Many organizations will also discover new opportunities to unify communications across the organization through technology, as communication increasingly becomes the powerhouse of their most critical initiatives.

Making the turn toward digital competence

The first step in digital upskilling is understanding what digital competence means in your industry. While hyper-automation might be a key concern in one field, the internet of behaviors might be a central driver in another. Understanding the scope of digital competence will require an analysis of internal and external factors, opportunities and threats. When surveying your industry for opportunities to beef up hard skills, look to emerging areas like AI and machine learning, general data science, cyber security and DevOps.

Additionally, tomorrow's digitally proficient executive will be consistently balancing and refining the soft skills that enable and complement more concrete abilities. These include in-demand skills like:

  • Design thinking.
  • Strategic management.
  • Adaptability.
  • Complaint management.
  • Data governance.
  • Sales skills.

Leaders looking to improve their own senior leadership skills should consider taking advantage of formal options such as digital transformation programs offered by traditional educational institutions as well as doing their own exploration in industry groups to discover what resources and networking opportunities are available in their particular field of interest.

Most importantly, the digitally savvy leader will understand that digital transformation is driven from the top and is much more than technology. Tomorrow's opportunities will be found in clear and unified communications as organizations are shaped by executive digital competence.

To learn more about the tech-forward approach to communications that will undergird this shift, start here.

1Gartner, Lack of Skills Threatens Digital Transformation, Scott Engler, July 1, 2020