What does it really mean to be a digital leader?

Written by Jonny Elliot
25/04/2019

Those of us who remember the Casio digital watch or come from a digital marketing background will appreciate that the meaning of “digital” has evolved over the years, and will no doubt continue to evolve in the years ahead. So before we tackle what it means to be a digital leader, let’s remind ourselves of a current definition. One I’m regularly reading at the moment is that digital means:



“Applying the culture, practices, processes and technologies of the internet era to respond to people’s raised expectations”

- Tom Loosemore, Co-founder, Government Digital Service (GDS)


This definition makes clear that we’ve now moved way beyond digital as a type of watch, or something that the marketing & comms team does. Instead it now comprises 2 truths:

  • 1) That digital is not about a focus on technology, but a focus on people’s raised expectations, (or as I prefer to say, their changing expectations), and

  • 2) That doing so necessitates a shift in mindset, behaviours, and if you work in an organisation, a shift in culture.

But why does it need to go this far? Why can’t we just launch a shiny new piece of tech that will improve staff or client satisfaction, outcomes, or the efficiency of our service, and be done with it?

Unfortunately in the internet era, there are many stories of organisations that have launched shiny new tech experiences only to see them end up on the rubbish dump of good intention. Why? Because the people that created them failed to maintain alignment of the experience to the most important thing we will discuss today; changing user expectations. When this happens it can often lead to disillusionment over the original investment, and weaken the business case for continued investment, which is the very thing that may be needed to get things back on track.

How can this happen? Sometimes it’s because not enough time has been spent thinking through the connection between the investment and certain strategic goals or outcomes. Other times it can be found by asking a more fundamental question; is the organisation “user-led”?

Whether the user is a member of staff, a supporter, or a client, and regardless of whether the “experience” is tech-based, paper-based, or face-to-face, are end-users put at the heart of product or service design? Are staff trained in continuous improvement approaches like Agile? Does the SMT champion new ideas, and changes in direction based on plans made a year (or a month) ago? Does the Board hold the SMT to account for the ongoing review of the customer journey?

Being “user-led”, or the practice of User Centred Design is a seemingly obvious, practical idea, but the practice of it can create tensions in organisations that are not willing or able to change and improve at the speed that clients / customers / the market demands.

Digital leadership is therefore about far more than just launching that shiny piece of tech. It’s about having the courage to put users’ expectations, pain-points and needs at the centre of our organisations’ focus. And then it’s about building the skills, processes, and culture to enable teams to identify opportunities for improvement, and to design and continuously improve new experiences at the speed of changing user needs.

In the internet era; a time in which technology has mainstreamed and continues to become part of our everyday lives, the pursuit of digital leadership is a strategic issue. At scale, users’ needs become market needs, and therefore the pursuit of digital leadership becomes synonymous with the pursuit of sustained market relevance, competitiveness, and the potential we have as a sector to solve society’s toughest challenges.

So how do you start the journey to digital leadership? Last year the brilliant team at CAST launched the 10 Digital Design Principles, which combine both practical advice on things like user interviewing and building teams, with more philosophical principles like openness and collaboration. Similarly the Charity Digital Code is full of best practice, and uniquely addresses issues of strategy and governance. In my role at Salesforce.org I often recommend these resources to nonprofits who are planning a digital roadmap with the Salesforce platform. For many, the biggest challenge is not the technology change itself, but the change to mindsets and skills needed to realise the value of technology in driving forward their vision and mission in the internet era.

Special thanks to Marcelle, Richard, and David who gave their time to review this blog.




Jonny Elliot is a senior solutions engineer at Salesforce. You can find him on Twitter at @tweetjonnye.




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