by Christopher C. Barron

How to become a successful digital leader

Nov 07, 2016
IT LeadershipIT Skills

Digital leadership is one of the most sought after skill sets today but almost nobody can define the characteristics a person should possess. Here are four strategies that successful digital leaders are adopting.

innovation digital transformation ts
Credit: Thinkstock

The winds of change are blowing again in the world of technology. Unlike the past, when the gale was driven by a new technology or service, this time the topic is all about “digital leadership.” Many companies are seeking digital leaders, and some of you may have even seen opportunities come your way. But what is a digital leader? If you search the internet for direct answers, you’re not likely to find them. That’s why I’m going to tell you exactly what it means to be a digital leader and how to take steps towards becoming one.

Beginning around four years ago, I started seeing this term everywhere. I had no idea what it meant, although I was reading everything I could find. A good example of the early attempts at defining “digital” come from this Forbes article in 2013. Like most pieces that you read even now in 2016, the Forbes piece describes several characteristics of being a digital leader but does not give a concrete definition of how to become one.

From five years of observation, I have concluded that digital leaders consistently do four things. Let’s take a look at them.

Question the foundation

The beginning precept of the digital movement is the realization that much of IT has become a commodity. Building and owning massive data centers, buying large IT appliances, and servicing high cost maintenance contracts may have been impressive 10 years ago. Today, those expenses are almost uniformly unnecessary overhead that brings little value. There are so many external vendors and partners who can provide the same service but without any of the cost or ownership of doing it yourself. To not leverage these external partners at this point is irresponsible.

Where the legacy CIO would proudly tout the management of a massively complex internal architecture, the new digital leader points to the higher level of service and lower costs achieved through external partnerships. If you want to be a digital IT leader, then you should be embracing cloud infrastructure and getting out of facility management as fast as you possibly can. Your CFO will certainly support this effort when looking at the old cost structure versus the new.

Thin the herd

While almost everyone in the U.S. has given up on the idea of lifelong employment at one company, many leaders feel a strong loyalty to their employees. There is nothing wrong with feeling this way as long as the leaders understand that their first loyalty is to the health and success of the company. Does it really make sense to maintain a DevOps team of 40 people when external shops can do the same work for half the cost and higher quality? Is your company well served by maintaining staff DBAs and system administrators? There are always exceptions, but in general, the use of external partners for commodity IT work costs less, allows for talent flexibility, and empowers a leader to continually force partners to compete for her spend.

A digital leader creates the leanest internal organization possible to gain the flexibility to utilize the brightest external talent, at the best terms, on-demand.

Manage and secure the flow

Embracing the cloud and a virtual workforce are necessary steps for a digital CIO. But don’t be fooled into thinking this transformation is simple. With traffic and services moving outside of the traditional company network, the IT leader must rapidly become an expert in two areas: networking and security. Many CIOs with whom I’ve spoken believe that they already have these skills. Not true. Moving data between cloud stores, office users, mobile field and operations personnel, and customers is a completely different challenge than managing a network where all resources are behind a homogeneous firewall solution. In many cases, companies have had to completely redesign their networks from the bottom up to successfully address the challenges brought on by cloud adoption. Ask yourself – what do you truly know about QoS or dynamic network analysis? A digital CIO does not have to be a technical expert, but he most certainly must have a keen understanding of how successful technology strategies always begin and end with networking architecture.

Information Security is one of the main considerations on the minds of digital leaders and has been for several years. There is so much to be said on this topic that we will leave it, for now, to a future post. To get you thinking about the subject, just keep two things in mind.

1. In 2015 total worldwide spend on infosec products was $75 billion. In the period between 2017-2021 the worldwide spend will jump to $1 trillion.

2.  A true digital CIO will have a least five different vendors providing infosec tools and services.

Be visible, be heard, be known

It’s well known that many IT leaders are introverted, and many articles support that assumption. Yet, business has moved past the need for reactive “order taking” from CIOs and their staff. Technology, if it is to be useful, has to be employed where work is occurring. What’s more, company leaders outside of IT need to be kept well informed of what is happening, what is possible, and what is likely to come.

A successful digital leader is one who is constantly visible, always communicating, and a consummate relationship builder.

There are many paths to becoming an excellent digital CIO. If you take heed of these four points, you will be well on your way to earning your digital stripes.