COVID-19: the role of a digital leader in uncertain times

By Georgia Wilson
Speaking to Kearney and PwC, Business Chief EMEA discovers what it means to be a digital leader in a time of crisis...

“In an era of unprecedented industry disruption, digital leaders are spinning more proverbial plates than ever before,” begins Ramyani Basu, Partner at Kearney. “Today’s digital leaders must live, breathe, and drive the right digital mindset, skillset and cultural changes across the organisation so that digital is not looked upon as just ‘a programme’ but rather a revitalised way of doing business going forward.

“Digital leadership is about driving change at pace and scale and building the required support across the organisation to bring everyone else along for the journey. This means that a digital leader must act as a broker between the business and technology, an orchestrator of business and customer outcomes, a networker and collaborator with external partners, and a true leader of people.”

Echoing Basu’s thoughts, Amanda Line, PwC Partner and PwC’s Academy Leader adds,”Leadership has always required a specialised set of skills, such as curiosity, empathy, and decisive action. In today’s world, there is an urgent need for a new type of leader – one who has a digital mindset and has the skills to drive transformation. With the ever-expanding spectrum of new technologies, we need a new wave of digital leaders who not only understand the application of intelligent technologies in the workplace, but also know how to enable and empower their teams.” 

The essential traits of a digital leader

Reflecting on the essential traits of a digital leader, Basu begins by outlining that, “successful digital leaders have five key traits.”

  1. Bold and aspirational: having a vision and purpose that underpins the company’s strategic goals both short and long term.
  2. Customer focus and centricity: successful digital leaders engage frequently with their customer base, and leverage data/customer insights to respond to their needs with innovative products, experiences, and solutions. 
  3. Collaborative and open to experimentation: a successful digital leader builds an operating model that fosters a culture of collaboration and ideation. This means that they allow for failure, which is an unavoidable part of the innovation process. 
  4. An ability to recognise, nurture, retain and attract talent: invest in your people with the same vigor that you invest in technology, as one will not work without the other. 
  5. Lead with authenticity: they will inspire their teams, recognise and share success, learn from failure and move on.

“These skills not only motivate and drive your teams forward but are also essential when it comes to influencing your stakeholders,” continues Basu. 

Adding to Basu’s essential traits, Line says, “Knowledge of digital and data literacy is a given essential to have a strong command of the future economy. In my opinion, what’s even more important are human-centric skills. It is the soft skills such as communication, resilience, emotional intelligence, and entrepreneurial thinking that are pivotal in this new-age digital world.”

However, despite the demand for future skill sets “we’re currently facing the biggest skills shortage of our lifetime, adds Line. “PwC’s Middle East CEO survey highlighted that 80 per cent of CEOs believe that a shortage of skills in the workforce is one of the key threats to their organisation’s growth prospects.”

How digital leadership has evolved following the outbreak of COVID-19 

“At the point of the COVID-19 outbreak, companies were still toying with what digital transformation actually meant and how to adapt,” comments Basu. “COVID-19 was in fact the catalyst required to move from a position of intent to action. It required companies to actually test their digital readiness. 

With COVID-19 shining a light on the need for digital leaders to be more resilient and responsive to immediate threats and opportunities, “agility and adapting to new ways of working became paramount,” explains Basu. Further adding to Basu’s comments, Line says, “Prior to the pandemic, the World Economic Forum set an ambitious target to upskill one billion people by 2030. This was initiated to tackle the 75 million jobs expected to be displaced by automation and AI by 2022. Since Covid-19, the window of opportunity to reskill has become shorter in the newly constrained labour market.

The way we live, work and learn has changed drastically, placing digital technologies at the forefront. The pace of change has accelerated the need for upskilling and reskilling. In many organisations and economies, this crisis has highlighted the discrepancy between the skills people have and those needed for jobs in the digital world.”

The initial outbreak (March 2020) and the role of a digital leader

Looking back to the beginning of the outbreak in March 2020, Basu explains that, “At the start of the pandemic, digital leaders had to respond to safeguard both their employees and business. The priority quickly became the safety of their employees, which required a rapid re-think of the employee engagement and communications process to address what employees needed, Why? When? What? And how?” Adding to this, Basu continues, “Digital leaders had to couple these demands with ensuring that their digital infrastructure and set up was up to scratch and ready to deploy at a moment’s notice to support the overnight move to remote working.”

As the impact of the pandemic continued to evolve “the second important role was to manage steady state operations even during COVID-19 adversities. This included reviewing, strengthening and upgrading critical systems in an ongoing and sustainable way and not simply a stop-gap solution. Introducing automation for simplification and process streamlining, as well as identifying cost cutting measures to address the revenue downturns through prioritisation.

“Once the foundations to run a ‘business in the new normal’ were in place, digital leaders were tasked to understand how to achieve growth in uncertain times by using data and advanced technologies to determine the organisation’s advantage and identify new revenue and commercial streams to boost current business.”

The role of a digital leader as the pandemic progresses

With Line highlighting that “84 per cent of employers are set to rapidly digitalise working processes, including a significant expansion of remote work—with the potential to move 44 per cent of their workforce to operate remotely,” the role of a digital leader has “evolved from a state of ‘respond’ to a mode of ‘recover’ and ‘reimagine’,” adds Basu. “As next steps for recovery and re-invigorating growth, digital leaders must redefine and respond to customer needs. COVID-19 has resulted in a major shift when it comes to customer expectations and demands,” she adds. 

“This is a very significant change towards a digital future. Technology is moving at a rapid pace, and having digital skills is no longer a ‘good to have’, it is critical to business success. Leaders and employees alike must adapt to a cycle of constant learning and upskilling to remain competitive,” continues Line. 

“Leaders need to continue to refresh digital and innovation strategies at a pace which matches market movements, adds Basu. “There should be a focus right now on digital engagement, external partnerships, remote operations, automation, etc – however, these will evolve and leaders will need to keep an eye out for what’s next . Leaders will also need to build the right talent and skills, as evolving customer demands require evolving employee skill sets. Finally, they’ll need to build resilient and responsive value chains.”.


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