Prediction 6: Senior leaders will work on their digital acumen

Posted by Andrea Derler on January 18, 2018.

The new world of work demands more than improving the digital skills of midlevel managers. HR must now turn its attention to CEOs and other top-level executives. While research1 shows that most organizations—7 out of 10—are doing a good job tailoring programs for first-, mid-, and senior-level leaders at their company, this focus on the center has left the top of the corporate pyramid less than ready for today’s fast-changing business environment. Just one-half of these same organizations have tailored programs for executives2, leaving C-suite teams to their own devices when it comes to boosting digital capabilities.

We will discuss the following three key elements of building digital leadership in more depth in the coming months through our continuing research on this evolving topic:

  • Executives need to walk the walk. The reality is that most senior executives have not retooled their leadership skills for today’s digital environment. In a report3 on digital transformation, with more than 400 business leaders surveyed, two items stand out:- Less than one-half of these leaders felt they had the digital skills to be successful in their roles. – The single biggest issue holding back their business was lack of digital leadership skills.In Deloitte’s Achieving Digital Maturity, the picture is even bleaker. Only 51 percent of organizations think their leadership has sufficient knowledge and ability to lead their organization’s digital strategy.4

Ramping up the digital acumen of most senior executives will not be easy nor will it be accomplished by traditional means. For starters, HR is not perceived inside the corporate campus as being the most skilled at digital business.5 That honor usually goes to technology, IT, and analytics teams. Those tech-centered groups, however, tend to lack the coaching and mentoring expertise, as well as the learning-, leadership-, and program-development capabilities at the core of HR.

Success will often be found through strong collaboration between HR, IT / technology, and other internal digital-leadership experts. HR must bring to bear its know-how in creating programs with a clear direction and measurable results, while IT / technology can serve in the role of internal subject-matter experts.

  • Leaders must embrace a new way of thinking. Being a successful digital leader entails much more than understanding data, analytics, and other high-tech tools and resources. It requires a different way of thinking. HR will need to help these executives translate their traditional leadership skills into a new digital context, as the following examples illustrate6:- People leadership. When it comes to the capability of execution, traditional leaders have focused on setting targets and managing performance. In the digital age, however, leaders must empower their teams to think and behave in a new way. This can be accomplished by building open-sourced, multidimensional, remote, and / or temporary project teams—through networks of teams.- Relationship leadership. Traditional leaders have looked to promote collaboration within a group. Now, digital leaders will need to be adept at getting individuals to work across teams, silos, geographies, and time zones. This means creating seamless synergies across teams that have no previous experience working together and may not understand why this is important.

Business leadership. When it comes to providing direction, traditional leaders have been expected to provide a top-down strategic vision. Digital leaders, however, will need to guide the creation of a shared vision and purpose by involving people across the organization.

Entrepreneurial leadership. Traditional leaders have built talent through development and succession plans. In today’s fast-moving digital world, digital leaders will instead need to create a culture and environment of accelerated and continuous learning.

  • Senior executives need real-time experiences. To be successful in creating digital leadership programs for executives, HR will again need to look beyond traditional training programs. Instead, HR should create an environment that encourages three key themes[7]:- Risk-taking – Knowledge-sharing – Social learningSome of the most novel initiatives blur the line between real work and leadership development. In some cases, executives are being taken on so-called “retail safaris” to see how customers engage with the company’s products. Others are visiting operating rooms to see how teams of surgeons and other healthcare professionals work together in life-threatening situations. Still others are using immersive virtual reality games that put executives through team-based challenges8.

Successful leadership development initiatives should expose leadership talent to real-life situations in which they can learn—firsthand—what “digital leadership” feels like.

Every day from January 16 through January 26, Bersin will be sharing perspectives on the most timely, relevant, and interesting developments for HR professionals to watch in 2018. Check back every day, or visit on January 29 for a consolidated report with all of the predictions.

Andrea DerlerAndrea Derler, Leadership & Succession Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Andrea leads Bersin’s research execution team and also serves as leadership and succession management research leader for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Focused on the continued evolution of Bersin’s research capabilities, her expertise lies in research on business leadership, leadership development and learning, and related talent topics. Her work about leaders’ ideal employee received widespread media attention in Europe and has been published in the journal Leadership & Organization Development. Andrea has a doctoral degree in economics (leadership and organization) from the FernUniversity Hagen (Germany) and a master’s degree in philosophy from the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz (Austria).

1 High-Impact Leadership: Maturity Model Benchmarks, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrea Derler, PhD, 2016.
2 Ibid.
3 Driving Digital Transformation: New Skills for Leaders, New Role for the CIO, Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Publishing, 2015,
4 Aligning the Organization for Its Digital Future, MIT Sloan Management Review and Deloitte University Press / Gerald C. Kane, Doug Palmer, Anh Nguyen Phillips, David Kiron, and Natasha Buckley, July 2016,
5 Driving Digital Transformation: New Skills for Leaders, New Role for the CIO, Harvard Business Review, Harvard Business School Publishing, 2015,
6 A Portrait of the Digital Leader, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrea Derler, PhD, Marjorie Knight, and John Crump, PhD, 2018.
7 High-Impact Leadership: The Leadership Maturity Model, Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrea Derler, PhD, 2016.
8 “Experiential Leadership Development,” Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP / Andrea Derler, 2017,

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