Leadership in the digital age

Michelle Giovannozzi

The environment in which traditional managers operated was very different from today’s workplace. Managers had time to scan the environment and make slow, thoughtful decisions. Trends evolved over time, and managers could see clearly, anticipate and adjust before making changes. Systems were simple and separate; generally, a manager could observe workers in action within the confines of his own facility. Formal communication took place face-to-face or by U.S. mail, which required scheduling, lead time and waiting. Data was generally isolated within the organization and tracked at a rudimentary level. Overall, most aspects of a business could be managed onsite and autonomously.

In today’s business environment, change is rapid and compresses time between trends leaving little time for deliberation. Rather than see a clear, obvious direction to follow, leaders often operate under turbulent, ambiguous conditions. Globalization has linked business systems, and in many cases interdependence is multi-cultural and multi-national. Communication is instant, constant and prolific, and data is readily available and shared across organizations.

This dynamic, transitive environment requires a very different skill set than that which made managers successful in the past. There will always be a need for managers, but in a more inter-connected, digital world without boundaries there is increasingly a need for leaders. In times of stability, great managers are critical; in times of change, great leaders are crucial. To flourish today, a leader must ignore traditional boundaries and reach out to create followers outside the organization, as well as within. He or she must seek diverse perspectives and build coalitions. A leader must develop a distinct vision and articulate it clearly and compellingly to inspire and motivate those they lead.

Today’s leader must look beyond present practices and technologies to innovate. They must study trends, anticipate and act before they occur in order to create the next trend. The leader must act with agility, not only adapting to change but embracing and leveraging it. At the same time, he or she must be willing to take risks and make decisions with less than 100 percent of the information needed. To outdo the competition, a leader must be comfortable with uncertainty and be willing to try and fail. As Erik Qualman explained in his 2012 book, Digital Leader, “We need to fail forward, fail fast, fail better.“

A savvy digital leader will crowd source business, using virtual processes and production to seek and engage the most innovative ideas for the lowest cost. They will use cloud collaboration to bring ideas, technology and resources together. The leader will harness social networks, as online communities replace face-to-face relationships as the most productive source of business connections.

To embody all of these strategies may seem overwhelming. However, most leaders already practice some of these and possess the ability to learn others. Development of 21st century leadership skills is one of the most frequent training requests fielded by Clark College Corporate Education. The tools and training are available to those who seek them. The real decision a leader has to make is whether they will embrace the opportunities of the digital age or become overwhelmed by its challenges.

As Douglas Rushkoff writes in Program or Be Programmed, “Choose the former, and you gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it could be the last real choice you get to make.”

Michelle Giovannozzi is the director of Corporate and Community Partnerships, Clark College Corporate Education. She can be reached at mgiovannozzi@clark.edu.

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