Digital transformation: 4 essential leadership skills

Here's how top IT leaders use inspiration, storytelling, decisiveness, and flexibility to drive successful organizations
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signs of a great digital transformation leader

As a tech leader, you should ensure that your teams are always learning. They should have the space to challenge the status quo and experiment with new technologies and approaches.

If that isn’t happening, there’s a good chance any transformation effort will stall, or worse, be abandoned. To avoid this, it can be helpful to identify which skills make someone stand out as a technology leader.

The following four skills are critical for technology leaders looking toward the future.

1. Inspiring others

At the heart of digital transformations, organizations want to unlock the concept of innovation. Harvesting innovation requires changing how teams plan, think, and act. Inspiring others is key to encouraging teams to think differently.

This is a challenge, as most organizations create barriers to change – opting for minor incremental improvements versus leapfrog breakthroughs. Inspirational technology leaders create teams that challenge the status quo, risk failure, and seek continuous learning to unlock innovation.

[ Also read How to be the manager your team needs in 2023. ]

Inspirational leadership is a continuous activity. Future-ready technology leaders keep teams motivated and progressing toward a shared goal through committed action. A great example is when leaders remove processes that slow the pace of change and have no clear value. Doing this allows their teams to move faster and free up bandwidth.

Inspirational leadership, backed with tangible action, helps motivate teams and release the innovation potential in an organization.

2. Storytelling

Once teams are motivated to create change, the next step is moving the entire organization toward the transformation goals.

To achieve this cross-organization momentum, today’s technology leader must be a strong storyteller. A leader’s ability to connect the purpose of a transformation with each member of the organization is critical to help everyone see themselves as part of the journey.

All transformations require team members to learn new skills and possibly take on new roles in the future. This can be a challenge for many team members if they are successful in their current role and do not see the need to change. Being a storyteller helps team members envision themselves being successful at the end of the transformational journey.

More broadly, a technology leader uses the skill of storytelling to create business and customer-centric narratives that allow stakeholders to better understand and connect with the transformational agenda. Many transformations start in technology – and the ability to bring an entire organization along increases chances for success and gets more people excited about the effort.

3. Decisiveness

Teams look to leaders to be decisive. As the pace of change quickens, it is even more critical for technology leaders to build confidence through decision-making, and most do not. With abundant choices and decisions, most technology leaders adopt a wait-and-see approach out of concern that making the wrong decision can hurt the team. However, with a timely decision based on the best information available, teams can accelerate progress.

We witnessed this outcome firsthand: An organization we worked with relied on gut and experience instead of measurement. Then the most senior technology leader made the decision to measure their most important metrics.

At first, the teams resisted. But with persistence and some inspirational storytelling from leaders, team members could see the progress they were making. As result, they moved from a culture based on gut and feel to one based on measurable progress against their objectives. This supported future decisions and allowed teams to be more welcoming of change to drive advancement.

4. Flexibility

Decisiveness by itself is not enough. A strong technology leader needs to operate with flexibility. The pace of change is no longer linear, and leaders have less time to assess and understand every aspect of a decision. Consequently, decisions are made faster and are not always the best ones. Realizing which decisions are not spot-on and being able to adapt quickly is an example of the type of flexibility a leader needs.

Another area leaders should understand is when, how, and from whom to take input when making adjustments. For example, leaders shouldn’t rely solely on customer input to make all product decisions. A flexible leader needs to understand the impact on the development teams and support teams as well.

In our experience, teams with decisive and flexible leaders are more accepting of change. This is especially true during transformation. Leaders need to know when and how to be decisive to lead their team to success. In tandem, future-ready leaders can adapt to new information and inputs in today’s fast-paced technology environment.

Inspiration, storytelling, decisiveness, and flexibility are four key skills future-ready technology leaders will need to help their organizations succeed. While there are other essential leadership skills to learn and cultivate, these are the most critical to handle the pace of change in the business world today.

In a world where fast beats slow, it’s important to embrace change.

[ New research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services identifies four focus areas for CIOs as they seek more flexibility, resilience, and momentum for digital transformation. Download the report now. ]

Ryan Gilmour is a Managing Director at Slalom, a purpose-led, global business and technology consulting company. With over 24 years of consulting experience, he has been at Slalom for 12 years and is based in the Dallas area.
Sara Eaton is a Technology Managing Director in Slalom’s Dallas Technology Enablement practice. Sara has over 20 years of experience in technology consulting, supporting multiple Fortune 100 companies in financial services, automotive, aviation, and telecommunications.