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Leading in the Digital Age

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Today’s leaders are telling everyone to ‘go digital’, when they themselves are not.


Many leaders know that they have to become more digital as an organisation, to better engage with customers externally and engage with each other as employees internally.


They tell their organisation to get more engaged and more digital, and then they look at themselves and realise they have no idea how to personally use these new tools.


A ‘do as I say, not as I do’ approach is no longer an option. It’s now a requirement as a leader to know how to engage your followers and lead them through these digital channels.


That is the assertion from Charlene Li, CEO of Altimeter Group, a company that provides independent research and strategy consulting on disruptive technology trends.


Charlene’s book, The Engaged Leader: A Strategy For Digital Transformation explains why leaders need to embrace digital channels to engage and inspire talent.


“I think leaders intuitively understand that they have to build a relationship with the people they are leading,” says Charlene. “They have traditionally done this very well face-to-face. We can look each other in the eye and say ‘Are we good? Are we in the same space and are we aligned in what we’re trying to do?’ That’s what the good leaders do.”


However, the way that we create relationships today is not just in the physical sense. 


“The problem now is that you’re leading teams that are separated by space, time and geographies, and the way we work is no longer synchronous. We don’t have that physical connection and don’t see each other very often.”


So how should we lead in this digital era?


“Leadership is still the same thing,” says Charlene. “We are still leaders trying to accomplish really audacious goals. But we have to be able to harness digital channels to communicate and establish relationships.


“We often think ‘digital’ is about the technologies. However, digital is really about how can we be ‘human’? How do we live with these technologies to bring the best of us all together?”


There are common objections and ‘excuses’ she hears from leaders: “The first one is ‘I don’t have time’. But that’s almost like saying I don’t have time to be a leader or to think strategically. I am just going to leave it to chance that I figure out how it happens.”


Charlene says she has no problem with leaders saying they don’t want to be on Twitter or LinkedIn because it doesn’t help them accomplish their leadership goals.


“But if you haven’t taken the time to actually see if your customers and employees need you to be there, then you’re not giving them the due respect that they deserve.”


The other excuse she often hears is ‘It’s not about me. Who cares about what I had for lunch?’


“People really don’t want to know what you had for lunch,” says Charlene. “However, they really do want to know what you’re thinking about as a leader or what you talked about over lunch.


“That way, they don’t have to guess any more, you can just tell them. It’s not about you, it’s about your leadership goals. That’s what they really want to know about.”


“The one that I often think is very valid is ‘I don’t want to mess up’. They hear all these horror stories and don’t want to their company to get into trouble and they don’t want to lose their job.”


Charlene concurs that it is incredibly hard and this is a key reason why many leaders don’t move forward in the digital space.


“You will know you are doing it well if your palms are sweaty and your stomach is churning, because that’s when you are really pushing yourself.”


Charlene says that she wrote her book to look into why engaged leadership has to be different today.


“I define an engaged leader as one who can take all aspects of their leadership and extend it to not only traditional means but also in the digital space. They are doing it in a very strategic way, that accomplishes all their goals.”


She says you need to start with a plan.


“Oftentimes when you’re leading, you’re doing it by gut, not by plan. To be effective leaders, we have to have a strategy. That means knowing what we will do and, just as importantly, what we will not do. You can’t do everything and everyone will have a different plan.”


She also suggests listening for 15 minutes every day to the people who most matter to you.


“If you can understand what your customers, employees and partners are thinking, no matter what channels they are communicating in, then you can be so much more effective.”


She describes her own personal example of how to apply this as a mix of both art and science.


“I have a lot of people who follow me on Twitter, but I only follow a maximum of 400. I’m very conscious of who I follow and why. I want my Twitter feed to work really hard for me and have voices that I really care about so that I can keep on top of things. That’s one of the best ways I can listen to help me do my job better.”


Charlene concludes, “It’s not about the technologies. They will come and go. The one thing that will always be a constant is relationships. How will you build relationships? How do you master them as a leader? It’s unique to each and every one of you and the way that you decide to engage with digital to build those relationships will be key to your future success.”



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