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Mar 30, 2017

Note: This is part one of a two part series on what’s required of successful leadership in the digital age. Part two posts tomorrow.

Leadership of progressive organizations is becoming increasingly difficult as technology, powered by artificial intelligence (AI), increasingly impacts the corporate landscape. Rather than one ingredient for assuring business competitiveness, innovation is now being seen as the key to relevance and survival in the digital age.

Meanwhile, the rules for running successful enterprises are being rewritten, with old theories and established practices regularly overturned by ambitious startups. Consequently, corporate concerns are frantically searching for ways to attain/sustain leadership excellence to ensure that promising possibilities are converted into gainful opportunities in a timely and effective manner.

Following are the first five of 10 tips for moving purposefully and robustly in the respective direction:

Tip # 1: Being a visionary isn’t enough; be a futurist

During the early part of the 21st century, Nokia was a dominant player in the cellular market. It led in innovation and introduced many iconic models, including, the legendary Nokia 3310. However, senior management didn’t foresee the potential of a platform-based hand-held device. This was amply exploited by Apple through the introduction of the iPhone. Nokia tried to mount a challenge by introducing more models that catered to the varying tastes of current and potential customers; however, it kept ignoring the broader ecosystem of digital communications.

Eventually, Nokia was sold to Microsoft by the then CEO, Stephen Elop, who uttered the insightful remarks through tears “We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost,” at the press conference announcing the acquisition.

The pace of digital revolution is unsettling, unforgiving and unrelenting. Nokia couldn’t capitalize on its early leadership in digital communications due to its excessive inward focus. Being a futurist is not an option for visionary leaders in the digital age; rather, it is an indispensable skill that needs to be actively and prominently cultivated throughout the pipeline of succession planning initiatives.

Tip # 2: Invest in open and flexible talent management systems

Conventional talent management systems are designed to be directional, disciplinary and dedicated. However, the digital age mandates timely and astute innovation, which enables experimentation that beckons ‘trendsetters’ and ‘free-thinkers’ who are allowed to stretch the boundaries of acceptable norms in converting possibilities into opportunities. These professionals generally have the capability of staying committed through nagging struggles, they possess steady focus and aren’t afraid of failure in order to achieve desired goals.

Some progressive organizations have developed separate functional entities to accommodate initiatives that are not aligned with the customary running of the organization. This will become more prevalent as AI-enabled devices become part of the workforce by graduating to an electronic team member role from a primarily mechanistic assistant in current applications which will encourage their human counterparts to engage in more cerebral roles in order to justify and maintain their relevance.

Tip #3: Be welcoming of the increasingly sensitized and connected world

The world has been steadily shrinking in terms of rapid communication, knowledge-transfer and wide connectivity. Every internet savvy person has a stake in this globalized communications network which has brought relevance to isolated and marginalized communities and opened organizations to the glaring spotlight of corporate accountability from multiple perspectives.

United Airlines learned this the hard way when a musician’s guitar was broken on one of its flights during baggage handling and he was consistently refused compensation despite repeated requests. Consequently, he channeled his talents into making an engaging video “United Breaks Guitars” which garnered a huge following on YouTube and forced United Airlines to issue an apology with an offer of compensation while suffering a blow to its corporate reputation and customer goodwill.

Community concerns for environment and social imbalances are pushing competitive organizations to proactively engage in remedial measures before suffering harm to their reputation. The term “activist” has shifted from being applied only to those engaged in an act of social defiance to mean “engaged” stakeholder. Therefore, organizations with an eye on the future should heed the adage “someone is always watching” and act in a more accommodating and responsible manner.

Tip #4: Don’t marginalize the human factor

Technology is highly addictive due to the promise of problem-solving and comfort, especially when aligned with customer needs and expectations. However, a key mistake that’s often made in acquiring new technologies is marginalizing the human factor. Without proper due-diligence, binge-spending on automation technology often results in regrettable situations, e.g., expensive investments that are not needed, multiple technologies that do not integrate with each other, depreciation of workforce’s inherent ingenuity, plausibility of cheaper solutions, etc.

Innovation is a cardinal humanistic concept that refers to the astute application of human ingenuity, whereas technology is a tool that enables the efficient accomplishment of targeted tasks and assignments. Keeping the ‘human factor’ in prime position ensures success in adopting and implementing technological solutions.

Tip #5: Make diversity and inclusion a core part of the culture

Consistently progressive, suitably paced and reliably profitable growth in the digital age is increasingly dependent upon the richness of the diversity and inclusion factor in the corporate domain. Different perspectives that open and widen horizons improve competitiveness in meeting the needs and expectations of customers from diverse backgrounds.

Attention to employee well-being is essential to ensuring that diversity and inclusion initiatives don’t fade away under deceptive employer branding initiatives which are big on touting diversity, but, fail miserably on inclusion.

The foundations of inclusiveness in the workplace are primarily strengthened by the informal social engagements and bonding among diverse employees, rather than as a consequence of formal talent management strategies and measures. Just look at the composition of the lunch tables in office cafeterias and lunchrooms to witness the coalescing of affinity groupings which will give you a window into the success or the enormity of the challenge.

A receptive organizational culture, complemented by astute talent management strategies will benefit from the often unnoticed talent, by incentivizing and encouraging a sense of belonging and promoting the inclusion of those yearning to unleash their unexplored potential.