199. How to become a Digital Leader

career strategy digital transformation Apr 17, 2024

In this episode, you will learn what leadership means in the Digital Age, and 3 things you can do to become a Digital Leader today.

Listen to learn:

  • Why being a leader isn't just being a visionary
  • What it means to lead in the Digital Age
  • How to learn about the frontier trends in your industry 

Resources mentioned in this episode:

FREE Course

5 Tech Concepts Every Business Leader Needs To Know

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Episode Transcript

Hello smart people!

How are you today?

I have a slight cold, but it is a sunny spring morning in London, and I am choosing to be in a good mood anyway.

Today, we are going to cover an important topic: what it means to be a lead in the Digital Age. This is useful because you are a smart and ambitious person, so you want a big outcome in your career. But if you are fuzzy on the outcome, you are likely to go down cul-de sacs. Basically, if you don’t know where you’re going, how on earth are you going to get there?

Today’s lesson is in three parts:
first, we will define what leadership is
Second, we will define what leadership looks like in the Digital Age
And finally, in the third section, I will share some points about what you can do to become a Digital Leader today.

Now, in return for this high quality education that I am giving you for free, I do ask you to leave this show a rating and a review. When you leave a rating and a review, other people like you then get to discover this show, and also it really helps me in my work. So, if you’ve been listening for a while, and you haven’t yet left a rating and a review, how about doing it right now. Thank you!

And now, let’s define leadership. Here’s a definition I like “Leadership is a set of behavioural choices to create a better future.”

This definition comes from Dr Linda Ginzel, one of my professors at Chicago Booth, who wrote an excellent book called Choosing Leadership: How to create a better future by building your courage, capacity and wisdom.

It’s a really good book on leadership, and if you’re interested in the topic, I highly recommend you read it. I’ve pasted the link to it in the show notes.

So let’s go back to the definition and delve a but deeper: “leadership is a set of behavioural choices to create a better future.”

Let’s take the “better future” segment. In order to take the actions towards a better future, you first need to define what that better future is, right?

So, a big part of leadership is having an idea of what the future can look like. This means having a vision of a better outcome. And this isn’t just in the workplace. You could have a vision of a better future for your family, for your personal life, for your country and so on.

Maybe you’re the first person in your family who has gone to university. This shows that you have held a vision of your own better future. Well done.

Deciding on a future vision is scary. Because it is in the future, you can’t see it yet, so you don’t know if you’re 100% right, or if the path you have chosen will work out.

Look at Nelson Mandela - he had a vision of a united, post Apartheid South Africa, and he held on to that vision for 27 years, while he was in prison.

This is why courage is a huge part of leadership. It takes courage to set a vision for a better future, and it takes even more courage to take steps every day to move towards it.

Look at Dr Ginzel’s definition again “leadership is a set of behavioural choices to create a better future.” Being a leader isn’t just about being the visionary. It is also about taking action, it is about changing your behaviour.

For example, you made the choice today to educate yourself. This is a behavioural choice to invest in your career, instead of listening to a true crime podcast.

So you are a the leader of your own life, and you are, right now, taking a behavioural choice to build a better future for yourself. I salute you.

There’s one more thing in the section on leadership. There is this image of managers being boring unimaginative duds, and leaders being visionary revolutionaries. This means everybody wants to be a leader, and despises managers.

But this is a false dichotomy. You can, and should be, both a manager and a leader.

Management is about today, leadership is about tomorrow. Management answers the question “how?” But leadership is about “where?”

For example, you might have a vision of retiring in the South of France. For this, you will want to learn French, and spend some time in the region.This is your vision.

But unless you book a vacation and plane tickets and find a place to stay, that vision will not come true. So to make a vision come true, you need management.

And now, let’s move on to what it means to lead in the Digital Age.

This does not mean managing a team of engineers, or making your own website. There are people who can do both of these things, and are terrible leaders.
Leading in the Digital Age means being able to set the vision for where you want to go, and being able to inspire and recruit the right people to get you there.
Remember: the definition of leadership is setting a course towards a better future AND taking actions to get there. In the digital context, this means being able to inspire and set the vision for engineers, data scientists and product managers, as well as for the business team.
This does not mean that you have to learn to code, or to become a technical expert. In order to lead in the digital age, you need to speak tech, not do tech.
Speaking tech means knowing the core terminology, understanding core differences between how digital teams work, versus how traditional business teams work, and also having a basic understanding of what your technical colleagues do.
This is not that hard to do, and if you’ve been listening to this show for a while, you are well on your way. People who have take our one day workshop on how to speak tech for leaders report having much more knowledge and confidence to work with their tech colleagues, literally after just a day. It’s not that hard.
Here is another important point: A Digital Leader can create an environment where the tech side and the non-tech side collaborate effectively.
I’ve seen people who really do understand tech and business concepts really well, but who just cannot create a collaborative environment between the tech and the business side.
There is a company I know of where the engineers and the business side barely speak to each other, and so when new versions of the product are released, the sales team, who are customer facing, fall into despair, because the product is not what customers want.
This company that I am thinking of needs leadership to bring the two sides together and create a regular dialogue, so they can make products that people actually want.
So you see, all this Digital Leadership stuff isn’t a bunch of fluff. If you don’t have real digital leadership in a company, that company is not going to make products people want, and thus it will not make money. Do I have your attention now?
Since our entire economy is going through digital transformation, investing in your skillset as a Digital Leader is the best possible thing you can do for your career. It is a gift that will keep on giving!
A corporate strategist, a lawyer or a founder can all be Digital Leaders.
Making the choice to be a Digital Leader, means learning how to collaborate with colleagues on the tech side. This means learning enough about what they do, and also knowing when it is appropriate to say “I don’t know.”
Remember, the key is knowing enough to collaborate and lead, not to do everything.
And now, let’s move on to part 3: what can you do to become a Digital Leader today?
I have three bits of advice for you.
Number 1: you have to learn to speak tech.
A good place to start is the Free course I made on the top 5 tech concepts every business leader needs to know. It is on the techfornontechies website, and I’ve also pasted it in the show notes. If you like this podcast, then you will find the course useful too, and it’s free!
And to go deeper, obviously get in touch with us about our executive education programs.
Number 2: remember that leadership is about setting the future, so investigate where your industry is going. Here is a good way to do this: find a tech start-up accelerator that focuses on your field, go to their events and study what start-ups they have in their latest cohorts.
This is the frontier of your industry, this is the bit of your industry that is super future focussed, and it is where future focused people like venture capitalists are making bets. So if you want to be a Digital Leader, then study what’s happening in your industry accelerators.
If you work in fashion, look at the New York Fashion Tech Lab. If you work in finance, there are several fintech accelerators ran by Techstars. There are accelerators specialising in every industry, so find one for yours and see what’s there.
But, my advice is to generally avoid corporate accelerators, as they tend to be less imaginative.
And remember, it’s not about you betting on a particular start-up, its about you identifying future trends in your industry, so you can make a decision about where your industry is going. That’s how you get to lead it.
And point 3:
Generative AI is a game changing technology, so make it part of your work. The easiest thing to do is to sign up to chatgpt 4 and to just use it for daily tasks. The future doesn’t belong to AI, but it does belong to people who know how to use AI. I want you to be one of them.
This brings today’s lesson to an end. Short and sweet and to the point, that’s how I like it. If you found it useful, please do leave this show a rating and a review.
And, if you would like to explore how our executive education programming can help you and your team lead in the digital age, then get in touch via the link in the show notes!
We’ve worked with some of the world’s leading corporations like Constellation Brands, Oxford University and the Royal Bank of Canada, so you will be in great company.
And on that note, I wish you a wonderful day, and I shall be back in your delightful smart ears next week. Ciao!

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