Developing ‘Disruptive Digital Leaders’ For The Post Pandemic Era


Disruption is happening everywhere and in every aspect of our lives. It is happening at a scale and speed that is unprecedented in modern history impacting diverse industries, from financial services to retail, media, logistics & supply chain, manufacturing, education, professional services, and healthcare & life sciences. Leaders are finding it challenging to navigate the near-insurmountable challenges resulting from the impact of these disruptive events on their operations and have to reinvent their operating and business models to ensure their survival.

We face a new era of radical uncertainty and disruption brought about by other challenges such as climate change, financial crises, terrorism, Brexit, demographic changes in the labour market, health/disease risk, mass migration and rapid developments in digital technology and its impact on transformation at the workplace. The management of shocks and crises is becoming an everyday occurrence. Organizations also need to be agile, and leverage opportunities and drive innovation to remain competitive in the face of challenging conditions.

Not every disruption is driven by advances in technology as we have seen in the case of Covid-19 pandemic since early 2020 where organizations all over the world face uncertain future in a global business environment that is highly disruptive and increasingly Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (collectively known as VUCA).

During the post-pandemic era, the pace of digital transformation at the workplace will continue to accelerate. The importance of the development of the suite of disruptive digital competencies that are required for operating successfully in such a business context is critical to ensure the sustainability of the organisation. Once focused primarily on improving the performance of employees who have fallen below standard or on providing opportunities for those with the highest potential, executive coaching now plays an expanded role, due to a greater appreciation of the value of an organization’s knowledge and human capital. To achieve critical results and remain competitive, organizations now see coaching not only as a means to shape individual performance but also, increasingly, to build broader organizational capacity in an increasingly ever-changing highly disruptive and digital business environment.
What Makes a Disruptive Digital Leader?
Digital transformation is occurring at an unprecedented pace, creating a more connected world, and providing new opportunities for businesses to grow and create value. The disruptive impact of technology on organizations of every size and sector is infinite, and we know the pace of disruption is accelerating. Leaders must be ready to lead in the digital age.

It’s also worth noting that today’s organizations are in different places on the road to digital transformation. If you are feeling stuck in your digital transformation work, you are not alone. One of the hardest questions in digital transformation is how to get over the initial humps from vision to execution. Even organizations that are well down the digital transformation path face tough ongoing hurdles, like budgeting, talent struggles, and culture change.

To resolve these challenges would require “disruptive digital leaders” who are visionary when it comes to the technology frontier. However, all decisions are still rooted in fiscal discipline and overall enterprise mission. This demands a risk-tolerant mindset — future technologies are volatile, and user adoption is challenging to predict. But a true disruptive digital leader is driven by the challenge and potential for creating new business value by harnessing breakthrough technology.

Digital transformation can be viewed as the integration of digital technology into all areas of a business resulting in fundamental changes to how businesses operate and how they deliver value to customers. Beyond that, it’s a cultural change that requires organizations to challenge the status quo continuously, experiment often, and get comfortable with failure, as it could be observed in organisations such as Microsoft, Starbucks, Grab and DBS Bank as featured in the book ‘Leadership in Disruptive Times’ (Bawany, 2020).

A survey of the current research and perspectives on high potentials who could be future disruptive digital leaders (e.g. Chamorro-Premuzic, Adler, and Kaiser 2017; Charan, Drotter, and Noel 2001; Corporate Leadership Council 2005; Ready, Conger, and Hill 2010; Silzer and Church 2009; Bawany 2019; Hagemann and Bawany 2016), as well as similar research on disruptive and digital leadership (e.g., Gibson, West, and Pastrovich 2020; Korn Ferry 2019; Freakley 2019; Mortlock et al. 2019; Harvard Business Review 2015), indicates specific disruptive leadership qualities.

These include, but are not limited to, a combination of variables such as visionary and entrepreneurial skills, innovation-driven mindset and experimentation (disruptive mentality), cognitive readiness and critical thinking (mental agility), emotional resilience, empathy, and social skills (people agility), driving for success (results agility), and resilience and adaptability (change agility) (Bawany 2020). See Figure 1.

Figure 1: The ‘Disruptive Digital Leader’ Competencies

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Case Study of Development of a ‘Disruptive Digial Leader’
Research into the practices of the best team leaders in digital-driven organizations including DBS Bank, Starbucks, Microsoft and Netflix, reveals that they conduct regular check-ins with each team member about near-term work. These brief conversations allow leaders to set expectations for the upcoming week, review priorities, comment on recent work and provide course correction, coaching, or important new information. The performance coaching conversations provide clarity regarding what is expected of each team member and why, what great work looks like, and how each can do his or her best work in the upcoming days, in other words, exactly the trinity of purpose, expectations, and strengths that characterize their best teams.

The following Case Study illustrates how the ADAM™ coaching methodology, by the Centre for Executive Education (CEE), has been successfully applied in the development of a newly appointed disruptive digital leader that has been identified through the Assessment & Development Centre (ADC) to be the Project Leader for an organization-wide digital transformation project.

The ADAM™ coaching methodology is a structured approach to coaching as an organisation development intervention which consists of a four-step process that is firmly grounded in leadership development best practices (See Figure 2).

Figure 2: Application of the ADAM™ coaching methodology for a digital-centric workplace

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The Situation: Leading an Innovation and Digital Transformation Project at Workplace
The said manager, belonging to Generation X (born between 1964 and 1979), has been with the organization for over 15 years. He was promoted to the role of vice-president of operations & technology at a global bank. The manager has a solid record of success in his previous roles where a hands-on, control-ling style with staff direct reports was an effective managerial tool. However, in his new position where he faced broad operational responsibilities and managing multiple stakeholders both internally and externally. The manager needed to lead cross-functionally by bringing together departments throughout the organization including strategy, finance, marketing, distribution, IT and technical operations. The make-up of the majority of the employees from these various functions is those of Generation Y (born between 1981 and 1994).

With significantly more Gen Yers under his leadership, the manager’s communication style was soon found to be confrontational and abrasive and often prevented him from building trusting relationships with his newly formed project management team to drive the digital transformation project, which the CEO has deemed to be critical to the success of the organization. His style also jeopardized negotiations with existing and potential key business alliances, channels of distribution and vendors.

Several of the senior leadership team members including the Chief Information Officer (CIO), Chief Data Officer (CDO) and Chief Technology Officer (CTO) perceived that the manager as unwilling or unable to adapt to his new role. It was soon apparent that if left unchecked, the situation could impact not only the manager’s career but most importantly the corporation’s strategic objectives. Not counting the loss of productivity, loss of the crucial digital talent and their replacement costs alone are expected to be substantial.

The Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) recommended to the CEO that coaching support will be a useful resource toward addressing the managerial challenges faced by this newly promoted manager. The CEO, who is a strong advocate for human capital development, believes that the manager, whom he has known over the years, can be developed. Hence, upon reviewing the business case put up by the CHRO and the Human Resource Business Partner (HRBP), the CEO agreed to the engagement of an executive coach.
The Coaching Strategy: Assessment, Feedback, Development of New Behavioural Skills
During the first stage of the performance coaching process, the manager completed a suite of assessments including a 360-degree feedback leadership effectiveness profile to provide objective information about his communication and leadership style. Feedback from project team members, peers and direct reports, combined with constructive 1:1 conversation with the CIO, CDO, CTO and CEO, provided a clear insight into style, competencies, and behaviours that are expected from the role of a Project Leader in driving Digital Transformation initiatives. This data enabled the manager to see the impact his behaviour had on others, and how it could impact his success in building relationships and reaching business outcomes of the specific digital transformation project that he was leading.

A developmental plan was written by the manager and reviewed with his executive coach to address gaps in areas of communication, collaboration, developing others (managerial coaching), relationship management (social skills), empathy, conflict management and strategic leadership. More effective techniques and approaches were role-played with the coach, and the manager was encouraged to use these new behaviours by leveraging on both the ADAM™ coaching framework and the GROW model during the managerial coaching conversations that he has planned weekly, both individually with each team member as well as in project team meeting. He also began to use them with business associates outside the organization.

The key performance indicators (KPIs) for the coaching engagement was to increase the manager’s effectiveness in all his business endeavours and to increase his ability to improve the organization’s success through managing the stakeholders as well as leading and engaging his project team in a much more effective manner than before.
Results: Tremendous Improvement in the Leader’s Communication Style Observed
Feedback received by the CHRO and the other senior leadership team members was that there is a much more open and trust-based communication between the manager and his team members as well as with the other stakeholders, Key sensitive strategic alliances were successfully negotiated, resulting in the implementation of the digital transformation project in a much more effective manner and ahead of the timeline for several of the tasks.

The manager was better able to communicate with and facilitate information transfer among his project team of primarily Gen Yers. Over 6 months, he was able to transform them into a high-performance team by adopting the SCORE™ framework for high-performing teams. A follow-up 360-degree leadership assessment was conducted where a positive change in the manager’s leadership and communication style was perceived by the various stakeholders.

Due to the success of this coaching intervention, both executive and transition coaching is being used more broadly as a tool to enhance leadership development among the future digital disruptive leaders as well as high-potential talent for other functional roles throughout the organization; resulting in the achievements of both tactical and strategic objectives of the organization.

The development of future disruptive digital leaders includes the process of transitioning them effectively into a leadership position. This could be smoother if new leaders develop a sense of optimism, and monitor and manage their outlook and perspective. Executive or transition coaching, mentoring, action learning workplace projects, leadership masterclass training, stretch assignments, executive education along with the relevant tools, and systems are very important towards the effective development of these future leaders. However, without the right outlook and unwavering support from the senior leadership team, new and even seasoned leaders will experience serious difficulties and unrest.

New leaders need to reflect on and examine their leadership attitude and perspective and develop a plan to work on areas that need improvement. Whether a manager is moving into a new position or looking to get back on the road to success, executive or transition coaching can work to bring out the best in the new leaders through the support of a professional relationship. The relationship has to be built on a foundation of trust and confidentiality. The ability of coaches to provide leaders as an outside resource that can also act as a sounding board can help them become the successful leaders they were meant to be.

As technology continues to disrupt the workplace, one of the key factors that would impact the success of the digital transformation is having the right team of disruptive digital leaders who can lead the digital transformation implementation successfully. Organizations should respond to this challenge by building new pools of skilled digital talent. To do so, they must identify who or what are the skills and attributes of these high-potential employees and assess and develop them into disruptive digital leaders who will lead the successful digital transformation initiatives at the workplace.

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