April 15th 2019

CRFCast – HR Insights from the Corporate Research Forum: Leadership in the Digital Age with Jay Conger

How is the practice of leadership changing in the face of digital disruption? How do we develop leaders prepared for the challenges of the digital age? In this CRFCast we describe a new research-based CRF leadership model and discuss the implications for leadership and leadership development with Professor Jay Conger.

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Episode Transcript

Gillian Pillans [00:00:03] You're listening to the CRF cast where we explore research we've been working on here at the Corporate Research Forum and we discuss the latest thinking and strategic HR topics with academics, practitioners and leading experts in the field. I'm Gillian Pillans, research director at CRF. And you can find out more about CRF and listen to our podcast archive at www.crforum.co.uk.

Gillian Pillans [00:00:36] The topic of today's CRF cast is leadership in the digital age. I'll be sharing the findings of our latest research titled Digital Disruption Exploring the Implications for Leaders and Leadership Development. I'll consider whether there really is anything different about leadership in the digital age compared with traditional leadership models. Then I'll be discussing the implications for leadership development with my co-author, Professor Jay Conger.

Gillian Pillans [00:01:04] Okay, let's get started by thinking about what it means to be a leader today, as we kicked off this research, we were a little bit sceptical about whether there really is anything to this concept of leadership in the digital age.

Gillian Pillans [00:01:15] Leadership is leadership, right? And critical leadership qualities such as the ability to communicate a vision or to develop a compelling strategy remain the same as they always have been. However, as our research progressed, we heard some consistent messages about how the demands of leadership were changing. The business context of fast paced change and innovative digital business models demand something different of leaders. So we boil this down into seven key differences that we spotted, which we organized into three principal dimensions. First of all, how you set direction as the leader. Second, the infrastructure really does need to build to enable rapid execution, experimentation and learning. And third, the new relationship skill sets leaders require. We've designed this as a model for leadership in the digital age, which you can use to shape the thinking around leadership in your organisation.

Gillian Pillans [00:02:09] You can find this model in our report, which is available on our website at www.crforum.co.uk. Double clicking into each of these three themes, we identified seven major differences around the demands of leaders today.

Gillian Pillans [00:02:25] Number one is dynamic decision making anchored to a core purpose. Leaders have to manage a paradox. They have to keep the organisation focussed on a consistent vision, while at the same time being adaptable to market changes in the short term. As Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, describes it, we are stubborn on vision and flexible on details, so the essential skill that leaders have to master is being clear about the limits of the vision so as to provide guardrails to gauge decision making within their teams. For example, materials company W Al Gore has a concept called waterline. Their associates have a great deal of autonomy, but are required to seek approval for any decision that poses so substantial a risk that it could hit the boot below the waterline and sink the ship.

Gillian Pillans [00:03:14] Number two is what we call catalytic environment scanning as the speed of change accelerates. So too does the need to grow the capacity within the organization to scan the market for weak signals, to identify patterns and to work out how the organization needs to respond. The essential change here is that this needs to be a constant ongoing activity, not just something done every few years. The moment you might achieve this that we've seen in practice is by designing the organization to have what we would describe as maximum surface area with the outside world. So creating many, many touch points with customers. So you've got a good chance of picking up early on, changing customer expectations and being able to do something about that faster than your competitors.

Gillian Pillans [00:03:58] Number three is about building the capacity for rapid execution of decisions to enable the organization to act quickly in a fast changing context. We're seeing many organizations adapting design, thinking as a method for becoming more customer oriented or using agile management techniques to get more quickly from idea to a commercially viable product.

Gillian Pillans [00:04:19] Number four is creating a culture of experimentation and learning. Success in today's context means experimenting with multiple different solutions and being prepared to walk away from those that just don't work. For example, it's estimated that at any one time Facebook may be running 10000 different versions of its platform as it constantly tests and defines the user experience. The sort of culture that's required for experimentation and learning has some unique features. For example, a culture that encourages people to speak up and views learning from failure as a positive thing rather than something to be swept under the carpet.

Gillian Pillans [00:04:56] Number five recognizes that leaders now have to manage more and more through collaborative networks rather than formal hierarchies. Leadership today is increasingly about orchestrating a loose network of contributors who may well share leadership among themselves. And that requires a different style of leadership to the hierarchical model.

Gillian Pillans [00:05:14] Number six, is it effectively just today have to master the many digital tools available to them? Teams now largely operate on a virtual basis and spans of control are much wider than they would have been 20 years ago. So leaders have to work out how to build and maintain trust and communicate virtually. They also have to master the art of using tools such as linked in and Twitter to build their own leadership persona, effectively building their own PR machine. They also have to manage the potential downsides of digital communication. For example, making sure their teams don't get burned out.

Gillian Pillans [00:05:47] Finally, the rule of leaders today is much more about being an enabler of experts within their team or network than holding all the knowledge and expertise within themselves, particularly in knowledge driven businesses. Leadership is less about telling people what to do and more about creating a context for others to do their best work and make good decisions. Empowerment and accountability are the key terms here.

Gillian Pillans [00:06:16] So that's CRF's model of leadership in the digital age. Coming up, I'm going to discuss the implications of our model for leadership development with Professor Jay Conger, who's a leading experts in leadership studies. And he's also my co-author on this research.

Gillian Pillans [00:06:39] If you're enjoying the CRF cast, please subscribe to our channel to get the latest editions automatically and leave us a review and to share with your colleagues to.

Gillian Pillans [00:06:50] Hi, Jay, thanks for joining us on the CRF cast.

Jay Conger [00:06:52] Hello, Gillian, nice to be here with you.

Gillian Pillans [00:06:55] Let's talk about the implications for leadership development of our research into leadership in the digital age.

Gillian Pillans [00:07:01] So one of the things we've found is that actually today less than a quarter of organizations actually have put in place any any form of development, this specific for the digital capabilities that atheist about. So looks like there's a lot to play for in this space. So thinking about your work as a leadership development professor, what does that tell you about the current status of leadership's about men? Are we focusing on the right things and is it going to give us what we need?

Jay Conger [00:07:27] Well, I think in many ways we're not actually focusing on the right things in the digital age. It's not surprising that we begin most of our programs with building a mindset around the importance of digital. But I've always said you can be aware of issues and actually do nothing with them. And so my concern would be that while we're building awareness, we're actually not doing the next more important step, which is actually helping people think about what they need to be doing differently or what they need to be doing more of and less of. In addition, are learning methods because of digital technology have pushed us towards more learning bytes. Which are these five minute ten minute, 15 minute web portals where you go in, you get a set of steps, sort of techniques. You watch a video. You might have a little mini case study in there and then you check, right? Wrong. Yes. No. And what we know is in an era where you have a lot of change, that's actually the wrong method. And so in the world of our learning, we call those procedural kind of processes to learn where you get a set of formulas that historically would have proven to be very effective if you knew everything.


Jay Conger [00:08:40] And you really have the right formula. But with massive change, you need more declarative learning formats, which is really where you are taught to see patterns and understand unique contingencies and situations. And the current learning methods are really, really poor for that.

Gillian Pillans [00:08:57] So I guess the other things we need to build in practice. So what we're talking about here is a new behaviours and behaviour change. And so if you're just looking at a video, then it takes a huge amount of discipline to take that and then actually apply that job.

Jay Conger [00:09:12] Yeah, it's too abstract. It's it's you don't understand the kind of practical implantation skills. And then you also don't have the kind of hands on feedback as you try these skills up.

Gillian Pillans [00:09:24] And I think that's very much reflected in our data. So we find that a third of organisations actually don't know the impacts that their investments that are distorting the shift about men are having. And actually a quarter find that that what they're doing isn't working. It's just unsuccessful. So clearly there's a big gap between what we need to be doing and what what's currently happening. So let's just zoom in on a couple of quick questions. And so thinking about the capabilities that legions have to develop in the digital age, if you could focus on on one, what would that be?

Jay Conger [00:09:53] So if I only had one, I would choose facilitation skills in large part because facilitation skills forced the manager to move from being a doer or the centre of decision making to an enabler. And that's going to be more and more important. So learning how to facilitate discussions forces the manager to begin to entertain other perspectives as well. It forces them to entertain ideas that may not be theirs. And so I think that's going to be one of the most important skills. And what you and I have seen is that very few organizations actually teach that skill set. And so thinking about how we develop those capabilities, that there's only one leadership development methodology that you kids who mean I'm OK with that if I choose action learning and I choose action learning around real issues that the organizations are facing, the issues that are faced on the future, not current problems. So I'd have them really, really build out strong action learning programs. The problem with most of those is that they end up building awareness. They are back to this mindset and they actually rarely focus on taking the next set of steps which are about implementation. So I would design the programs to be very demanding and rigorous around picking real serious projects where both senior people and the mid-level and junior people not only to learn what has to happen, but then they run experiments that are really well thought out and that have realistic timeframes and that can turn into larger initiatives, which means the senior people have to step up and be very committed and sponsor these and champion these and remove the obstacles that often face kind of initiatives peering into the future.

Gillian Pillans [00:11:43] Okay. So you've seen lots of different action learning interventions. Well. What differentiates the good ones, the ones that really work and those that are kind of a waste of time?

Jay Conger [00:11:55] The waste of time ones are the report outs. We have a team go investigate an issue. You have maybe a panel of executives, listen to that report out and then nothing happens. But those are I mean, you could argue there's a little bit of value because they educate both sides, but they actually don't do anything. And then they also create this sense of cynicism. You know, didn't we look at that issue? Well, what did we do with it? So the best ones actually always have a focus on implementation. There's always a sense of going to use this actually to pilot things that we're gonna learn from and then we'll pivot because usually the initial ideas are not the ideas that lead to initiatives. So it's this entrepreneurial mindset that organisations, pretty large ones, need to adapt. And it's a really powerful vehicle for that.

Gillian Pillans [00:12:42] Okay, Jay Conger. Thank you very much.

Gillian Pillans [00:12:49] Before we finish, let's take a moment to reflect on some key messages from our research and from my conversation with Jay. First of all, our data show that we have some ways to go to find answers to the question of how we help our leaders build the capabilities they need to be successful in the digital age. What we are seeing is that current trends in leadership development are tending to atomized knowledge, breaking it down into bite sized chunks that can be consumed on the go by an e-learning platform, for example. However, you just need to learn to handle complexity, to adapt at speed and to create empowering environments for their teams. You don't learn those skills from watching a TED talk. We really need to go back to basics in terms of designing leadership development to reflect how adults learn. We do it. It was developed largely through experience. So we have to craft meaningful experiences, for example, through action learning projects that allow leaders to practice the new skills. We also need to provide support such as coaching to help leaders extract and apply the learning from these experiences for themselves. So that means setting ideas loose on real business problems and providing a much more personalized level of support that's tailored to the needs of individual leaders, not sheep dipping. It's more complicated than adopting something off the shelf, but it also has the potential to have a much deeper and longer lasting strategic impact. My thanks to Professor Jay Conger for sharing his insights with us.

[00:14:21] You've been listening to the CRF cast with me, Gillian Pillans, research director at CRF. You can find out more on our website at www.crforum.co.uk. Follow us on Twitter @C_R_Forum or join the CRF group on LinkedIn. Bye for now and thanks for listening.

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