Digital transformation: 8 ways to spot your organization's rising leaders

Today's biggest skill gaps are behavioral, not technical. Who has the right stuff in your organization? Consider these areas where successful digital transformation leaders shine
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As digital technology advances and changes faster than ever, enterprise adoption of transformational tools has been proceeding apace. As a result, “even a deep understanding of a particular domain may be obsolete in a year or two,” explains Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland, leader of the process and performance management team at APQC, a benchmarking, best practices, process and performance improvement, and knowledge management firm.

For digital transformation, the in-demand competencies are strategic problem solving, active listening, communication, and change management.

Thus, when it comes to successfully directing digital transformation efforts, it’s not necessarily technology know-how that best serves rising leaders. “[Our] research suggests the biggest skill gaps for digital transformation are behavioral, not technical,” Lyke-Ho-Gland says. “On survey after survey, organizations tell us that the in-demand competencies to make their digital initiatives successful are strategic problem-solving, active listening, communication, and change management.”

A number of specific qualities have emerged as common to the rising leaders who are seeing the best results from their digital transformation efforts, experts say:

1. They have a vision – and a plan

These leaders have a good understanding of both the business and of digital technologies so they can “enable the vision and help the organization think of the art of the possible,” says Rahul Singh, managing director of IT and business services transformation advisory firm Pace Harmon. Many IT leaders gain this understanding of the business by spending time in business operations, making them more effective in their role of driving digital transformation, Singh says.

The best digital transformation leaders know what the biggest pain points are inside the organization, says Lyke-Ho-Gland – and they create a digital roadmap addressing those points that the larger organization will get behind.

[ Do you say no to innovation theater? Read also Digital transformation: 11 habits of successful teams. ]

2. They focus on outcomes

This is the most important quality an IT leader can bring to a digital transformation effort, according to Elizabeth Ebert, IT advisory lead for North America at IT consultancy and service provider Avanade. “Digital transformation efforts tend to be larger efforts, which over the long run too often seem to come up short of the program objectives,” Ebert says.

“Outcome-focused leaders understand the need to drive that focus, assess any midcourse requests against the program commitments, and communicate relentlessly to reinforce expectations of sponsors.” They understand, measure, and report on both qualitative and quantitative benefits and make sure all project actions are structured to deliver those outcomes.

3. They are business leaders first and high EQ

"The change journey is as important as the technology journey."

“Transformation is occurring across the business with technology change agents and experts not only in IT,” says Steve Hall, partner and president of ISG, a global technology research and advisory firm. “For IT leaders to stay relevant, they need to be business-savvy with a very high EQ. Digital transformation involves all aspects of the organization, which means the change journey is as important as the technology journey.”

4. They are master marketers

“The most successful DT leaders can compellingly market those solutions to business stakeholders so that they adopt the new tools and ways of working,” says Lauren Trees, who heads up APQC’s Knowledge Management research group.

ISG’s Hall describes one successful CIO he worked with as the best salesperson in the organization: “He had implemented all of the company’s products within IT (eat your own cooking) and talked to prospects daily on the challenges he was able to overcome with the product suite,” Hall recalls. “This level of integration made him extremely valuable to the business and the clients and he was eventually selected to lead the organization’s digital journey.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Download our digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

5. They cross boundaries

Digital transformation works best when teams collaborate across functions, business units, and geographies. “It enables better adoption of digital technologies,” says Pace Harmon’s Singh. “Successful leaders have the ability to think across silos and are able to effectively leverage expertise from an external partner ecosystem to accelerate digital transformation.”

6. They don't chase every fad

“Unfortunately, the industry is throwing technology at problems and hoping that the problems solve themselves,” says Prashant Kelker, partner for digital strategy & solutions at ISG. IT leaders who know their industry segment best are in the best position to select the most relevant technology for their domain.

7. They are skilled translators

“When an IT leader within one of the top five insurance firms spoke about APIs…he was met with eyes glazed over from his business counterparts,” Kelker says. “He switched to talking about publishing our insurance products to a broader audience beyond our current brokers. That got their attention.” Suddenly there was a demand to create APIs to improve the reach of their products and remove dependencies on their known broker community.

8. They cultivate innovation and risk-taking

Digital leaders find ways to support their teams in challenging the status quo and taking risks with the understanding that not everything the team does will be successful, according to Singh. “Rewarding success is important,” Singh says, “but equally important is creating an environment where people are not penalized for trying intelligently and failing.”

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.