How to Successfully Transition Into Digital Leadership

Going from being actively involved in digital projects to taking on a role in digital leadership can be a difficult transition. In this post, I help bring focus to your new role.

Many people are promoted to a position of digital leadership because they are good at their job. That might be a development team, UX team, ecommerce function or even the entire digital capability of your business. However, when they take on the role, they discover that managing any digital team requires a different skillset and focus.

Many find it hard to let go of the day to day involvement in projects and end up micro-managing. That is not only terrible for team morale; it also makes the leader a bottleneck and leaves them burnt out.

Humorous cartoon strip showing the dangers of a micro-managing digital leadership style.
Get digital leadership wrong and you are in danger of becoming a micro-manager.

This micro-management happens, not because they don’t trust their team, but more because this is what they know and understand. New digital leaders retreat to this kind of work because they don’t know what they should be doing instead.

Senior management regularly thrust people into leadership without any training or the support they need. That is why so many digital leaders come to me for coaching.

In this post, I want to share with you the four critical roles I encourage those I coach to focus on. These define the majority of what they should be doing daily, rather than becoming entrenched with managing individual projects.

We begin with a digital leaders role to bridge the gap between their team and the rest of the organisation.

Improve Company-Wide Engagement

One of the primary roles of a digital leader is to encourage broader adoption of digital tools, mindsets and best practice across the entire organisation. In other words, it is to promote digital transformation.

That may be limited to a specific aspect of digital such as UX or development, depending on your team. But, there will still be new working practices that the entire organisation could benefit from.

This role consists of two parts. First, there is the need to work collaboratively with other departments to nurture a strategy. This digital strategy should integrate your team tightly with the rest of the organisation and in time, allows them to manage parts of digital themselves.

For example, if you head up a UX team, you will want to introduce colleagues to the benefits of testing with users and research. In time, you might want to provide them with enough skills and training to be able to carry out some research and testing themselves, without needing to rely on you.

However, initially, the most significant part of the digital leader’s engagement role is to help the rest of the organisation understand what your team does. That will involve you learning to communicate in ways they can associate with and becoming a bit of a marketer for what it is you do.

You will have to start broadening your skillset to make this happen. However, communication skills are not the only new set of skills you will need to adopt.

Develop a Broader Perspective

Many of those who transition into a digital leadership role find themselves managing a diverse team made up of many different disciplines. However, their personal experience lies in a much narrower subject area.

In such circumstances, you must learn as much as is feasible about the other disciplines you are involved in. Only then can you provide them with the support they need and communicate with them effectively.

Even if your team specialises in a specific area such as UX or development, it is still essential to widen your skillset as much as possible to ensure a good working relationship with other departments.

As I transitioned from being a designer to a consultant, I had to accept that I would no longer be at the cutting edge of visual design if I were also going to develop at least a cursory understanding of development, marketing, copywriting and product management.

I am aware this can be hard to do because it will mean letting go of your previous specialism to embrace a broader portfolio. That proves difficult for two reasons. First, you feel you are losing your core skills, and second, it means accepting that for the most part, your team members will know more than you in their area of specialism.

However, this is a crucial step to take. You cannot be the expert in everything, but you can have a broader perspective that ensures everything works together well. Your role is to see the bigger picture.

At this point, you might be wondering what you will do all day if you aren’t involved in projects and you no longer have the skills to work at the coalface. Well, your central role will be to empower your team.

Empower Your Team

Your job is primarily to help your team do their job. Its that simple. That task manifests itself in various ways.

One of the more common is to make sure they have the time, budget and tools they need. It falls to you to negotiate realistic deadlines and to secure reasonable budgets. It is also your job to work with your team to choose the tools everybody will use to maximise their productivity.

However, it doesn’t stop there. Your job will also include putting in place those frameworks and working practices that help your team get their work done faster and to a higher standard.

While everybody else is working on projects, you can look at the bigger picture and write that digital playbook or develop the design system nobody has ever got around to.

You can ensure that your team gets the proper briefing they need, and others in the business understand how your team runs projects.

That includes a similar but somewhat separate role of protecting your team from the rest of the organisation.

Protect Your Team

Because the work we do as digital professionals touch every aspect of the business, there is no shortage of stakeholders expressing opinions, demanding time and setting constraints on how your team works. It is your job to protect them from all of that as much as possible.

  • If legal says that you have to have a colossal privacy statement on the homepage of your website, it is your job to ensure it never happens and your team never have to deal with it.
  • If the IT department blocks websites your team wants to use daily, it is your job to get them unblocked.
  • If procurement insists that you cannot hire a freelancer without going out to tender, you have to find a workaround so you can get the extra help you need and take the pressure off your team.

I could go on, but you get the idea. In short, it is your job to create as good an environment as possible for your team to do their best work.

Digital Leadership is About Service

In many ways, the term ‘leader’ has the wrong connotation for what digital leadership should be. It implies striking out in a direction and declaring “everybody follow me”. However, in most cases, it is something entirely different.

Most of the time, digital leadership means listening to your team’s recommendations about the direction you should go, and then clearing the path so that the journey is as painless as possible.

Put another way; digital leadership has more to do with service than it does being in charge. You are there to serve your team so they can produce work that brings benefit to the broader organisation.

Yes, in some cases you will need to take charge because individual members of your team cannot see the bigger picture. However, in most cases, it comes down to listening and facilitating.

Illustration by Stories by Freepik.

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