IT leadership: 5 traits of truly digital leaders

Running digital transformation efforts does not make you a digital leader. Here's what distinguishes leaders of successful digital businesses.
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Every organization can make standalone digital investments, launch many digital transformation efforts, or even hire a team of digital executives to help them achieve digital nirvana. But actions made in isolation without fully adopting what it takes to become a digital business are destined to fail. The fact is, there’s no silver bullet for building a digital organization, nor is there a clear deadline or desired end state.

To truly be digital – instead of just doing digital things – a business becomes a different version of itself by adopting a complete mindset and operational shift, preparing to adapt to change continuously. Becoming a digital business means accepting that change is the rule, not the exception – and that this constant state of change is the opportunity for them to stand out, not fall behind. And it takes an exceptional team. No single individual or IT leader can do it alone.

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5 signs of digital leaders

Businesses thriving in this new digital age are focused, optimistic, resilient, and obsessed with delivering value to their customers – when, where, and how they want it. The bottom line: Businesses that are truly digital are more profitable and more likely to be around through the next few years of change.

What traits do these leaders have that their predecessors do not? Here are five:

1. They have a clear vision for how the organization fits in our digital world

Digital leaders define a clear picture that’s shared and understood across the entire organization. When done right, digital is baked into every part of the business rather than a discrete line item in a plan.

Every department and stakeholder of the vision should see the potential ROI of digital and understand how they can contribute to the process.

Digital organizations often set a long-term vision to transform their company while being clear that their strategy to achieve that vision will continuously evolve based on market conditions and constantly changing customer expectations.

2. They continuously ship lovable products and experiences

“If you build it, they will come” no longer applies in a market of competition, high expectations, and low tolerance for friction.

Today’s reality: if you build it, your customers will love it or quickly leave it. That’s why digital leaders focus on creating value for the customer by shipping lovable products and experiences. Cross-functional teams manage these products and experiences focused on delivering outcomes (not output) that are constantly improving – realizing that products endure while projects end. Leadership is budgeting and planning for continuous improvement and refinement and adds value every day until there is a decision to sunset a product or experience.

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

3. They build scalable, flexible, and secure platforms

For digital leaders, technology infrastructure isn’t a cost center – it’s an asset to drive growth and deliver speed to value.

Customer-focused platforms built to be scalable, flexible, and secure are foundational. Indeed, digital companies ensure that they have the right tools and technology infrastructure to enable bringing new products or enhancements to market fast. That’s the edge.

4. Data and insight drive the entire organization

Digital leaders make sure that data isn’t mined and captured just to be dormant. Data is only as good as the insights it provides and the actions it inspires.

In digital businesses, data, insight, and action are critical at every level within the organization.

In digital businesses, data, insight, and action are critical at every level within the organization. From the C-Suite to product and sales teams, leaders have clean and accurate data and optimize it to make all levels of decisions within the organization.

5. They thrive at the speed of digital

True digital leaders have a permanent work-in-progress mindset and inspire an environment of experimentation and rapid iteration across their organization. They aren’t stuck with any process or product if a new one can add more customer or organizational value.

They are open to and actively seek data or customer feedback that challenges their assumptions. And critically, they can pivot or change course quickly based on a new insight, market change, or emerging opportunity.

Digital leaders don’t just hope for this agile mindset; they ensure it’s built into the fabric of the organization – organizing cross-functional product teams, incentivizing toward results and not completion, and continuously upskilling talent to improve products and experiences.

Becoming a digital business isn’t just important; it’s imperative. Your clients and customers are judging you against their experiences with all brands, not just those in your industry or competitive set. Agility and customer-centricity are keys to success, and these might require doing things differently. It’s time to act like a digital leader – not just hire one.

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

Mazen Ghalayini is leader of West Monroe's Product & Experience Lab and member of the firm's executive team and board. Mazen believes that becoming a digital business is not a transformation or a one-time event. It is an active state of being.
MJ Johnson is Managing Director in West Monroe’s Product & Experience Lab. MJ helps clients see what’s possible and pushes them to think beyond their current assets and capabilities. This introduces them to a future that includes better products, more productive people, and a more effective operation.