Digital Transformation Leader and Technology Trusted Advisor, Adem Yetim CITP CEng Eur ING IntPE FBCS, discusses the evolving role of a leader in the digital age.

The criteria for highly skilled and competent leaders in today's modern business life is changing. In this age of accelerating digitalisation and intensifying economic uncertainties, how can mentorship help? In this article, we will focus on the role of leadership and mentorship while navigating a digital transformation journey.

First, let’s define digitalisation. In the business world, it means using digital data and technologies to transform business operations, processes, functions, and business models. The pandemic accelerated the digital shift - and now many companies can operate in a digital workspace with a digital supply chain.

When we talk about digital transformation, you may think of robots, disruptive technology and huge pools of data. Financially, digital transformation can increase revenues and become a real competitive weapon that triggers innovations by transforming customer experience and business processes.

Without a doubt, digital transformation is vital for companies today, however it brings a danger of extinction for companies that don’t manage it correctly. As a result, companies have a critical need for a new kind of leader, who can guide and influence their teams to successfully navigate the challenges of a digital transformation journey.

Digital leaders must evolve

Digital leaders must evolve from a ‘knowing’ leader to a ‘learning’ leader. In the past, you might have been a leader if you knew everything and could apply it to the team. However, nowadays, it is more important to be able to admit that you don’t know everything and be willing to learn. Since technology is rapidly evolving, digital transformation is a moving target, so you need a flexible leadership strategy to stay up to date with current trends.

'Mentorship can help a leader stay connected with a network of mentors and mentees who can provide valuable resources, guidance, and help inspire ideas.'

As a digital leader, your main focus should be on understanding, planning, leading, and managing the transformation. This includes creating a strong digital vision and ensuring effective cross-team communication to help your teams embrace the vision. By designing business models with a digital focus, you can achieve better financial results and address the company’s future needs.

Developing the right teams

Although digital transformations include data and technology, the common denominator for success is the people who are involved. Over time, we may see a polarisation between institutions with employees who adapt to digitalisation and those who don’t, so developing the right teams early is vital. Since digitalisation affects nearly every position within a company, a successful transformation requires giving digitalisation-related goals to every employee.

The ultimate goal is to build teams with complementary skills, so they can learn from one another during the journey. As a leader, you must recognise the weaknesses of your teams and be able to fill the gaps.

How can mentoring help? In today’s digital climate, everything that an employee already knows is quickly outdated; so, the most effective teams include people who are open to learning, not those who already know a job best. Mentors can encourage mentees to work toward specific development goals, to help them upskill, or to find a new challenge within in their work team.

Mentors who are curious and know how to research, learn, and apply what they have learned, can help others do the same. This will lead to strong, flexible teams, who are ready to adapt to change and your institutions will be better prepared to handle whatever the future brings.

Success is achieved with teamwork. And stellar teamwork is a by-product of leading by example and mentoring employees according to individual needs. With that in mind, what do today’s visionary digital leaders need to be able to guide their teams to success?

‘A digital transformation leader should inspire their team and be authentic. The best leaders empathise with employees and take on a mentorship role.’

Qualities of a digital leader

In the past, leaders may have separated their business and personal life, but in the digital age that line is virtually erased and we can balance both lives with technology. You may collaborate with employees to set the vision and work alongside them to achieve it. If you evaluate and manage employees individually, instead of the team as a whole and let your leadership style morph into mentorship, then your employees will respond more sincerely and constructively to your leadership.

Other important qualities for today’s digital leader include being an innovative intrapreneur and learning how to harness the power of reverse-mentoring. If you start a new business, you’re an entrepreneur. If you’re a leader who brings new ideas to the table within your company, you’re an "intrapreneur.” You may have a brilliant plan to navigate a digital transformation, but you may not have enough technical understanding to make it happen. This is where reverse mentoring can help.

Reverse-mentoring means that you tap into the ideas and expertise of junior members of your team or a mentee. A younger, less-experienced employee may have a better understanding of their peers’ expectations in the digital world. So, mentorship goes both ways. While you are helping a mentee to find their path, don’t underestimate the valuable insights they can share with you and miss out on the opportunity to learn from them.

Four common mistakes to avoid

Let’s look at some common problems encountered during a digital transformation journey and how leadership and mentorship can help.

1. Unrealistic expectations. Some organisations are overly optimistic in the early stages of their digital transformation. Dazzled by new and developing innovations, decision-makers immediately want to have the latest technology. Leaders can’t afford to allow enthusiasm for the technology to guide decisions before they fully understand the impact of the transformation itself. If a digital transformation is poorly planned, you will face a frightening reality check when the new technology deploys and your organisation fails to effectively manage it. Find a mentor who has already gone down the path to guide you on your way.

2. Insufficient human resources. Many businesses lack the knowledge, skills and equipment to keep up with the speed of digital transformation and the global skills gap is growing in the ever-changing digital business landscape. Unfortunately, it may be difficult for existing personnel to acquire the necessary skills fast enough to meet demand. So, be aware of your teams’ weaknesses and fill the gaps by hiring or training employees to be ready. Encourage mentees to be life-learners and continuously develop their skills.

3. Divisions. Poor communication due to organisational rivalries can stall a digital transformation. Since the question of how to meet customer expectations is open-ended, it requires trial and error, as well as constant communication, to decide which technology to use and how to use it. Business and technical units must cooperate to provide a seamless customer experience during a digital transformation.

Eliminating divisions also speeds up the work, giving you an important competitive advantage. By moving forward in short iterations with a design focus, customers will see continual improvements. Brainstorm with a mentor or mentee about best practices to unify teams.

4. Failure to create a digital culture. It is essential to combine the power of technology with an organisational culture that embraces the transformation. The digital expectations of customers continue to increase, so if a digital culture has not been established, employees won’t embrace the digital processes and customer service will suffer, which could lead to a loss of business.

The leadership of senior management must show that they comprehend how much work and effort a digital transformation requires, so employees feel understood and supported, otherwise performance and team morale may decline. Leaders must give adequate direction and champion the change, so employees will channel their efforts to support the transformation.

As technology continues to transform business, leadership and mentoring emerge as main differentiators between companies that keep up with digital transformation and the rest of the pack. Human resources (HR) must reinforce the leadership and cultural changes, so they become permanent. HR can motivate employees through incentive programs and competency models that reward desired behaviors and make the digital culture sustainable. My previous article, Motivation - the key to mentoring, highlighted the importance of motivation on a journey.

Mentorship for tomorrow

In the digital transformation journey, the way to success is to create a strong ecosystem of independent organisations that exchange knowledge and experience. We are very fortunate that BCS provides us this opportunity in the BCS Career Mentoring Network (CMN). You can participate as either a mentor or mentee to connect with the industry's leading digital transformation leaders, directors and trusted advisors and be a part of something greater than yourself.

The BCS CMN is not a secret, so please share the vision and help the network grow stronger. You can be the digital leaders and mentors who shape tomorrow’s digital ecosystem and develop the next generation of leaders.