Foundation of digital transformation

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The tech world has seen some amazing success stories, like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

Though all three are known for helming companies that made some great business decisions at the right time and made a lot of people a lot of money, some of their biggest achievements are how they structured their companies to keep on thriving, with or without their presence.

Gates’ organizational leadership abilities allowed him to retire and focus on philanthropic efforts. Jobs, who died, made sure that Apple executives continued his vision and kept the momentum moving strong. And as for Zuckerberg, he’s still running the show at Facebook, but he has said that he could walk away at any time and things would be in good hands. But he still seems to enjoy his role and continues to learn and adjust the company’s course as needed.

All three are solid examples of digital leadership, which takes basic principles of service, automation and drive for profits, and adjusts for 21st century mindsets, work ethics and focus on achieving success as a corporation and a corporate citizen rather than individual success. It’s not always easy to pull this off, and it requires moving at a fast pace, being creative and not being bound by old rules like “it’s always been this way, so that’s the way it has to be.”

Things are more fast-paced and can require buy-in from a whole team, not just a top-down mandate or a clever mission statement.

For companies wanting to zero-in on their digital innovation leadership, try these four key strategies.

Disrupt yourself

Yes, a leader can and should be a figurehead who makes the tough calls. He or she also likely made it to the top by having good intuition and practicing good habits. But one of the biggest regular challenges facing a leader is figuring out when and how to change.

Your personal values and morals don’t need to change, of course, but it’s a smart idea to explore why you are doing the things you’re doing and consider other possibilities. Essentially, if you want your company to be dynamic, embrace new ideas and not get stuck in “old thinking,” it has to start with you.

Disruptive innovation means going out on a limb, looking to learn about areas you’re unfamiliar with or are not comfortable with and taking some risks. Maybe an idea will be a winner, maybe it won’t. But the only way to know is to try.

Flip the pyramid

The traditional corporate structure starts with the leading officials at the top and plenty of “little people” below. This doesn’t work as well in the tech world — leaders are still needed, but the performance and abilities of many of the lower levels are key to the success of the entire organization.

The better managers understand that they have a different role than simply making people do things — they need to encourage team members to produce, collaborate and focus on the greater good. Employees need the tools to succeed, such as resources, paperwork and project coordination, which managers are there to provide. And that’s how the typical pyramid has been turned upside-down.

A welcome trend in not just tech environments is for employees to be empowered to make decisions or solve many problems themselves, rather than always being told what to do or require managerial input on every task.

Start collaborating

Though it’s always easy to talk about rivalries and focus only market shares and balance sheets, many past and present tech leaders will say there’s a point when people need to look beyond their private corporate enclaves and focus on the greater good. Many tech leaders often look for ways to find common ground, such as social policy, labor laws and workplace conditions. Governors and even U.S. presidents often invite top tech talent to come together to discuss using the industry’s talent to benefit the country.

Innovation can be seen and usually found when people say, “How can we work together?” rather than “We’re not allowed to talk to you.”

Ultimately this approach benefits more people, though it sometimes takes an extra-conscious effort to put aside corporate egos. Intel is a much-hailed example as a chip maker that helped bridge the Microsoft-Apple divide to create products that benefited both systems. Likewise, an individual with a reputation as one who “doesn’t play nice with others” may stop getting invitations to be part of larger projects that benefit more people.

Don’t be afraid to lead

All this talk of “leading from behind” can be somewhat unnerving to people accustomed to or trained in past ways of doing business. But doing business differently, as is done in disruptive, digital environments, doesn’t mean that leaders are no longer needed. In fact, leaders with vision are even more in demand. They can focus on the bigger picture, empower the whole team, and set strategy for the organization’s present and future efforts.

Even people without actual titles — or salaries — can still lead by example and distinguish themselves as eager to take a broader view, inspire others and seek consensus. It’s not so much “We have to do it this way,” but “Let’s figure out some approaches to tackle this problem.” Being open and inclusive are also both assets to focus upon.

Overall, the pace and mentality of tech industry is a perfect example of the new models of leadership. Disruption is the name of the game in terms of how past thinking may not hold up and employees need to keep looking ahead, rather in the past. Leadership in this world requires the same approach for buy-in. 

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