Four times I failed in my digital competence development

By Erik Lind Olsen – Partner

In my almost 20 years on the job market, the competences required of a leader have gone from being two-dimensional to three-dimensional.

It is no longer enough to possess human and analytical skills. All necessary skills have been “multiplied by digital”.

In my own case, I joined the digital party slightly late, but in the last five years, I have deliberately sought opportunities to acquire the digital skills, which will determine the value you can offer as a leader on the future job market.

This article is my perspective on the importance of digital skills for the leader of both now and the future, and I will use my own mistakes to illustrate my points. I hope that my mistakes may inspire you to make wiser choices than I did and, not least, inspire you to embrace the opportunities to grow as a leader.

First mistake: I am not an IT guy

My story begins in 2002 at my last interview for my first full-time job. I was asked if I preferred to work with digitalisation in the construction sector or with public-private collaboration in the building sector. Today, this would be somewhat of an absurd juxtaposition, but back then, I opted for the collaboration – I did not want to be an IT guy!

Instead, I focused on developing my human skills as a manager in an important government initiative with many stakeholders. As principal in a government agency, I may have been at the bottom of the food chain in the ministry hierarchy, but it was obvious that there were plenty of opportunities to practise leadership from this position as well.

The core of leadership then and now are the human competences that most of us started to learn in kindergarten. They can be described in many way, but at the end of the day, they all boil down to three things: To be able to navigate the situation you are in, to be able to handle your relationships and to stay true to yourself along the way:

Navigation: We are surrounded by power structures. There is always a boss. And there is always someone watching your actions and attaching significance to them. A fundamental competence is to be able to understand and handle the various situations and structures we find ourselves in.
Relationships: To be able to function as leaders and as human beings, we have to be able to cooperate, put ourselves in other people’s shoes and build further on each interaction with others. Not least if and when many of these relationships transcend formal hierarchies.
Identity: Finally, you cannot lead anything or anyone without understanding your own point of departure. Where are you coming from, where do you want to go, and what controls your personal choices?
To me, it was a time of learning (read: a time, when I made a lot of mistakes, however, most of them only once). But the biggest mistake was the one I missed: I completely missed how crucial the digital development was in the sector I was working in. I could have joined the first-movers, but instead I had to fight my way up to them at a much later stage. And the reason was hopeless: My self-image and vanity did not match my perception of an IT guy.

Second mistake: Leadership and IT has nothing to do with each other

Later on, in my first consulting job, I also encountered my first ERP system. Unfortunately, I did not spend a lot of effort on trying to understand the system or the role I played in getting the system to work. On the contrary, I saw the system as something that was the responsibility of others and I perceived myself to be a blameless victim forced to overcome these unreasonable obstacles to my important work.

It was also during my first years as a consultant that I expanded my understanding of the analytical skills necessary for a leader. These skills can be summarised in three abstraction levels for leadership:

Strategy: As a leader, the most abstract analytic task is the future and how to prepare for it. Strategic thinking is about understanding and describing the future-oriented patterns we see in the present and that we use to choose a position to aim for
Project: To make any kind of progress, it is also crucial to master the type of tactical thinking that will get us from A to B. Planning, project management and risk management constitute the somewhat overlooked middle child, which often makes the difference between leaders who accomplish change and those that don’t
Operations: And last but not least, it is about understanding the daily operations and achieving the highest possible levels of customer satisfaction, internal enthusiasm and productivity with the resources available
What I overlooked was the opportunity to connect these three levels of thinking with the systems and applications we all use to an increasing extent to govern our businesses and organisations. I was of course a user but lacked all enthusiasm and interest in understanding and developing these systems. I was aware that we had IT systems but it took an urgent wake-up call before I saw the bigger picture.

Third mistake: The system works!

This wake-up call came when I got the doubtful pleasure of taking over the implementation of a new ERP system. We worked hard on getting up the systems up and running and training our employees in all the new ways of working. But we made two major mistakes

First of all, we didn’t look deep enough into how things worked to begin with, so we were often stumped when the employees asked us reasonable and sensible questions on how they were expected to work in the new system.

Second of all, we started out with far too high expectations of the IT skills in the employees. We focused too much on whether the system actually worked and far too little on the underlying processes and data that bring life to the systems.

This juxtaposition highlights the digital competences you have to possess as a leader today:

  • Technology: There is a rapidly widening window of opportunity for technological solutions, and no one knows everything happening. As a leader, it is however essential that you are aware of the types of solutions that exist or are coming and how to make them work together
  • Process: The core of digital development is processes. What we do, how we do it and how one activity is linked to another. As a leader, it is key to understand how the processes work in real life for your customers and employees and to consider how to improve them
  • Data: The outcome of a process is often data, which inform other processes. Data quality is an important management discipline because it contains information about the quality of your processes and because it will determine your future digital opportunities. Data storage, utilisation and security have all become central themes in all analytical and leadership processes

I learned the hard way on the job that training begins with listening and understanding – and subsequently to take each and every individual role, process and data point seriously. And not least each and every individual.

Fourth mistake: Technology solves all problems

Almost three years ago, I was offered an exciting chance to help a shipping company in Singapore to set up a digital programme.

We did many things right in terms of digital. But we overlooked some of the most fundamental, non-digital skills when COVID-19 hit us, and everybody got sent home. For the first many months, we were thrilled by how great we were: our development teams were up and running, and everybody worked hard, but after six months, we started to realise that we had lost our way. Although the efforts were fine, nothing came out of the machine.

To fix this, we started using some of the basic tools for relationships and project management that we may had overlooked slightly while everything was running smoothly. We got to be pretty good at setting up informal sessions and social events under these new restrictions. And we redefined how we managed our product development to ensure that everyone could see the same purpose and worked according to the same short-term targets. Technology was clearly not enough.

We got the team and the programme back on track, but the experience was a useful reminder that digital skills are not a replacement for the other skills. My personal lesson was that it is the combination of the human, analytical and digital skills that will determine your potential as a leader.

So what can you learn from my mistakes?

At the strategical, tactical and operational levels, you will be able to create and change more with the opportunities offered by technology, and this is why they are worth investing your time and money in. But the pitfalls are many if you forget your fundamental human skills or misunderstand what type of problem you are about to solve.

I hope that my mistakes in the past will encourage you to seise digital opportunities and combine them with your other professional and human skills. At the end of the day, the above can be summarised in these three messages:

  1. It is never too late
  2. Digital skills make a crucial difference
  3. You cannot ignore the traditional leadership skills

So my best advice to you, dear leader, is to seise all opportunities to hone your digital skills and to combine these skills with the rest of the gold in your leadership toolbox. I promise you that you will become a better leader for it.

Want to learn more? If you would like to learn more, please email [email protected] and we’ll be in touch right away.

This article was originally published in Danish in Ledelse i Udvikling.