Leading a distributed workforce that you only see in small Zoom boxes on a regular basis requires a special set of skills that often get confused in the rush to digitize and become more tech-savvy than competitors. On the contrary, succeeding in a leadership role in digital businesses in the months and years to come requires a mix of communication skills, creativity and adaptability.
That’s the word of a number of successful business leaders, who have a very different view of what it takes to aspire to and take on leadership roles in digital businesses. Presumably, our current fast-paced world is destined to be dominated by those with a deep understanding of sophisticated technologies. There’s some truth to that, but it’s only part of the story. While there may be a growing reliance on artificial intelligence for decision making, this only makes critical thinking more important for aspiring and current business leaders. “All jobs will require critical thinking skills, especially as AI begins to be deployed,” says Matt HulettCEO and President of Pet Med Express. “Communication and creativity skills are going to be key.”
Strong leaders “are excellent communicators,” agrees Jeff Van PevenagePresident and CEO of Columbia Grain International. “It is important to articulate your strategy and your position very clearly to ensure the success of the company. Empathy is also essential for proper functioning. Your number one priority is your people, and the way you treat them shows that you believe in their value.”
The rise of remote work has changed the leadership equation. “Before the pandemic, we all had characters at work and characters at home, which were separated,” explains Jen GrantCEO of Apply. But we suddenly found ourselves at everyone’s house, saw their children, their dogs, the stuff they had on their walls; it changed the way we perceived our colleagues, but it also changed that separation of characters. As a leader, you can no longer ignore what is happening in the world or in people’s lives. More often than not, the team needs to hear that it’s okay to feel sad, to be tired, to need a moment to get out and recover.”
Also be adaptable, empathetic and transparent. The need for transparency is particularly critical because there is no longer a centralized 9 to 5 office; much of the workforce is distributed across networks. “Employees need additional training and resources,” says Tyler Crawfordchief operating officer of Bankers Health Group. “With many businesses operating remotely, being overly transparent and visible is key in environments where you no longer meet your team face-to-face.”
Such transparency — regardless of working arrangements — is perhaps the most important trait an aspiring or current leader needs in today’s environments, Van Pevenage says. “This requires educating teams on what is happening within the business – strengths, challenges and opportunities for growth. A strong leader ensures that employees feel more engaged and understand the current climate and the end goal.”
In terms of skills to bring to organizations, “a mental attitude of innovation and thinking outside the box will always be a proven and sought-after trait for companies around the world,” says Crawford. Great companies “enjoy working with people who can push boundaries to keep creating, building and growing.”
We turn to technology to guide us through difficult times, as well as to enlighten us. But technology alone doesn’t produce new ideas, design new business models, or transform creaky, moribund organizations into future-ready services. It takes motivated and inspired people to build great companies.