A digital transformation leads to a fundamental change in everything the business does, impacting employees on all levels. Success requires leadership skills in employee engagement, to develop a shared purpose that drives a successful transformation.

A digital transformation is a process in which digital technologies are used to create or modify everything in the business to meet changing market and business environment requirements. It is a reimagining of the culture, work, processes, systems and customer experience. Such a fundamental change means there must also be a reimagining of the leadership skills needed to fully engage employees in the digital transformation. Without full employee support and skills development, the transformation is at risk of failing. Managers and supervisors will need to take the lead in helping employees develop a shared purpose, news goals, and the skills needed to succeed., First, leaders need to develop a new mindset that embraces the transformation, with such changes as digital savviness, democratized decision-making, and trust-building, so they can guide employees into the future.

Leaving the Past Behind

Leadership behaviors that worked in the past are not going to work in a future-oriented organization embarking on a digital transformation. Top-down decision-making and command-and-control leadership need to be replaced with decision-making that is democratized and more future business-oriented. Building trust with employees has always been important, but during a digital transformation, trust between leadership and employers is even more essential. A digital transformation is a long-term journey, and employees need to trust that changes now are important to the future.

Trust between employees and their managers and supervisors is a core principle for a successful digital transformation, because all of the changes made both now and in the future impact employees. The way they work must change, along with the way they communicate, interact with coworkers and management and communicate and interact with customers. Employees need new skills to maneuver through digital technologies, collaboration, and operational changes – and it is up to the organizational leaders to inspire and motivate employees to embrace digital transformation.

Forward-Thinking Leadership Skills

Changing the mindset of leaders, so they can in turn change the mindset of employees, is one of the first steps in preparing for a digital transformation. Since employees must trust their leaders, an important leadership skill is the ability to influence employees. Ordering them to learn digital technologies fails to recognize that a digital transformation creates ambiguity and fluidity in the workplace. The digital organization is moving into a future where technology needs will change often. Jason Pyle, Managing Director of IT recruitment firm Harvey Nash USA says, IT is no longer in control of all technical details. “Today, much of what IT does might be better described as a ‘watering hole’; a place that attracts, unites, and gives fuel to often quite disparate groups of people who are there by choice, not compulsion.” He was speaking to the radical change needed in the Chief Information Officer’s role, but all leadership roles will change similarly.

This kind of mindset change, supported by changes in structure and operations, is necessary for success. One of the first skills to master is the ability to convey a clear purpose to the workforce. This is not just change; it is a transformation with all its implications. The additional new technologies have a purpose, and leaders and employees want to develop a shared purpose. This purpose, of course, is to become more innovative, competitive, customer-oriented, and agile. Everyone understands that technologies are not a means to a closed-end, like a project with beginning and end dates, but rather a means to remain competitive into the future. Executive and senior leaders convey an inspirational vision to the entire organization, and leaders down the line embrace it, communicate it, and role model it in their behaviors.

Seeing the Big Picture to Always Move Forward

Change management skills are crucial, because employees are used to working in one way, and management is changing that way. There is always a discomfort level during any change, but a digital transformation is a major change requiring people to learn new technology skills and collaborate in a flatter and more agile workplace. However, they must also learn to make different decisions applicable to their job responsibilities. Frontline workers will have increasing autonomy and decision-making responsibilities. The advanced technologies will bring enormous changes over time – Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics, Deep Learning, Augmented Reality, Additive Manufacturing, and Big Data Analytics. Leaders need to have the skills to help employees see the “big picture” and also successes as they are achieved. Otherwise, there is a real chance the transformation will fail ,as employees only experience struggles to adapt day-to-day.

Of course, leaders must also be digital-savvy. They cannot expect employees to learn new skills, new ways of working, or see the future without an understanding of what employees are doing. McKinsey & Co, addressing what is needed for digital transformation success, points out that three success factors relate to the digital capabilities of employees. First, each employee’s roles and responsibilities are realigned with the transformation goals. The other two factors are leaders who serve as integrators of new digital technologies into the existing ways of working, and technology-innovation managers who can bridge the digital and traditional ways of operating. Leaders at every level need skills in helping employees challenge old ways of doing their jobs and developing appropriate risk-taking skills.

Leader Communication

Leaders in an organization undergoing a digital transformation need high-level relationship skills, employee coaching skills, agility, adaptability, and a willingness to be transparent. Digital communication skills are also essential. Digital communication includes all forms of technology-based communication for employee training, information sharing, collaboration, and updates on the transformation process and timeline. Social media, mobile apps, websites, email, podcasts, and videos are all ways the new generations of workers communicate, and they make it possible to keep a hybrid workforce informed and included. Digital communications enable the leader to connect with employees at any time, and reinforce the digital transformation, but leaders also need to develop the skills of a strong communicator. These include empathy, virtual listening, and collaborative skills.

No doubt it takes a lot of patience to reimagine an organization, but more importantly, it takes skilled leaders who are change managers. A digital transformation impacts everyone in the organization, but it is the leadership that determines success. Many attempts have failed because management did not develop a shared vision and purpose with employees. It is interesting to note that the right leadership skills are digital and people skills. Digital without people simply does not work.