Editor's note: The following is a guest article from Mary Mesaglio, with Gartner's Digital Futures group on the CIO research team. Apoorva Chhabra, associate principal analyst at Gartner, contributed.
Digital business transformation is often thought about in the context of organizational elements: changes to processes, facilities, policies and technology. However, effective leadership is one of the most fundamental and overlooked characteristics of a successful digital transformation.
The process of digital transformation demands leaders who exhibit traits that help them anticipate opportunities and threats, adapt to changing conditions and embrace disruption. To perform in this challenging context, digital leaders must focus on generating value, rather than just reacting to business requirements.
Here are seven standout characteristics that differentiate the most successful digital leaders and enable them to champion digital business transformation:
Digital leaders are neophiliacs
A neophiliac is a personality type characterized by a strong affinity for newness. Neophiliacs are naturally curious and want to explore new things.
Effective digital leaders generally have a deep desire to have and to create new experiences, and they naturally embrace innovation. They have a high degree of creativity, defined as the ability to link up seemingly unrelated domains.
Neophiliacs cultivate an attitude that welcomes diverse ideas that may break with the past, a key ingredient of any successful digital transformation.
In an innovation context, instead of adding incremental digital features to existing offerings, these leaders start from a zero-base point.
In other words, they ask, "what do we want to achieve?" rather than, "what do we have?" This approach explicitly directs the team towards new ideas by rejecting current assumptions.
Digital leaders invent, but also copy
There is often an assumption that digital leaders are inventing all the time and finding new ways of doing everything.
In reality, the best digital leaders have a refined appreciation for exactly where their organization needs to be different, and where they can copy or improvise.
Ineffective leaders tend to dabble in innovation, doing a bit of it all over the place. But dabbling does not lead to breakthroughs. Successful digital leaders instead place big bets in areas with clear objectives and advantages for the business.
They aim to be exponentially better than competitors in a few strategic areas, rather than just slightly better at everything.
In areas where innovation does not garner any advantage, these leaders copy based on tried and tested methods.
Digital leaders eschew industry boundaries
Gartner has identified certain hyperscale cloud providers as "digital dragons," going beyond technology infrastructure to compete in markets such as banking, insurance and retail. These dragons are creating whole new industries and are unconcerned with traditional boundaries.
Most leaders viscerally understand the threat posed by digital dragons. However, the best digital leaders also see the nonobvious threats, such as an enterprise in another industry that has the potential to decimate long-established businesses, or smaller companies that could cannibalize business subtly and slowly.
These leaders make decisions by keeping a clear vision of the future of their industry in mind, as opposed to considering the industry to be immutable.
Digital leaders appreciate that innovation is more than just creativity
Conventional leaders often assume that innovation and creativity are interchangeable, when in fact, creativity is only one of the five behaviors required to bring an innovation to market.
Innovation is creativity, augmented by an ability to challenge, collaborate, construct and commercialize a new idea.
Digital leaders should identify team members who can contribute to each stage of the innovation model. This includes those who are:
- Creative and can envision something that does not yet exist
- Good at challenging whether the new idea has value for stakeholders
- Good at pulling together different people from across the organization
- Good at building, including putting together deadlines and implementation plans
- Good at selling the new thing
Digital leaders build teams with high AQ
The disruption caused by digitalization ruthlessly overturns the old, ushering in a new, often unknown reality at a rapid pace. Teams must be measurably more resilient to thrive in a fast-changing world.
The adversity quotient (AQ) is a more powerful coping mechanism than the emotional quotient (EQ) or the intelligence quotient (IQ). A term coined by Paul Stoltz in 1997, AQ is the understanding and measurement of human resilience and capacity to live, work and deal with unavoidable and undesirable circumstances.
Resilience in the face of adversity is the way ahead. Great digital leaders measure the AQ of their people and build AQ by creating an environment where the team is used to overcoming unexpected change.
Just as high-performance coaches build resilience in their athletes by suddenly imposing changes on them during practice, business leaders can help their teams practice building resilience to cope with unexpected setbacks.
Digital leaders never consider digital to be the outcome
Even as the physical and digital worlds become indistinguishable, the best digital leaders are still clear that digital is a means, not an end.
They know that simply making something digital does not necessarily increase its value. For example, online grocery shopping can feel less friendly and more time-consuming for shoppers who like to browse the shelves for impulse buys.
Digital is a tool to enable transformation. Either it changes the way people work, such as with remote work technologies, agile development methods and collaboration tools, or it changes the products and services an entity provides.
Digital leaders geek out on technology and so do their people
Technical skills translate into business results. But it's hard to get value out of technology if you don't understand what it does and doesn't do.
The leaders of today's tech giants each possess a deep understanding of the very technology that their business was built upon, whether it's code, software or self-taught programming.
The more the digital world fuses with the physical, the more "geeks" are required to deliver these solutions.
Enthusiasts favor a technology-enriched environment where learning is engaging, interactive and customized. Following technology as a passion increases creativity, which is indispensable to stay innovative and relevant in the current crowded and competitive business space.