Would you describe yourself as a tech-savvy leader?
You can’t answer yes to that if the only piece of workplace tech you can use is Microsoft Outlook and your 8 year old has to show you how to use your iPhone.
- The digital skill problem
- Some everyday case studies
- A few thoughts and ideas on change
- What can be done?
Here’s my problem with the majority of modern leaders I’ve worked with in the past ten years, they’re all technophobes. I don’t just mean in the digital technology space either, I mean any form of new technology.
I’ve been surprised and on some occasions, downright shocked at just how many people in senior leadership positions can barely operate any device they use and the suite of workplace technology at their disposal.
You might be thinking, why is this a problem?
The answer to that is simple (for me anyway). Leaders who don’t and/or won’t take the time to understand how to make better use of digital technologies to support team performance, collaboration and communication are blockers in your talent pool.
Now to some, the use of the word blockers might sound harsh, but I stand by it. You see, in a leader’s lack of knowledge, an absence of innovation, capability and productivity is easily created.
For me, if you can’t understand basic principles of technology and how it can enable the work you do, then you can’t be an effective leader. When I say basic principles, I’m not talking about knowing how to code or build algorithms. I’m talking about basic stuff like how digital tech works, making better use of workplace collaboration tools and looking at how tech can support the daily workflow.
The area of shall we call it digital skills and/or literacy is something that I feel is missing from many leadership capability programmes in companies today. It’s not only a skill problem but a mindset one too. The main problem as far as my experiences have taught me, is the resistance to evolve with the times and make a behaviour change.
When I think about a modern leader, I envisage someone who nurtures and grows their team, and supports their performance. Technology is a key part of enabling these actions and making them better. But if leaders don’t educate themselves and keep up with the times, then they will be left behind in the future of work that’s being shaped right now.
Instead of continuing to point out an obvious issue and moan, let me share a few examples of the many which I’ve encountered where non-tech savvy leaders have held back teams, people and business performance.
#1: The file sharing collaboration incident
For me, this has become a classic at nearly every organisation I’ve worked with in the past 14 years.
Here’s the scene. Your team is working on a project which requires collaboration across your whole function. You need to work on an important document which your manager needs to share with the senior executive team. It’s essential that this information is in the best shape possible as it will be shared at the upcoming executive team presentation to all staff.
So, with a productivity/tech savvy hat on, you think, “Hey, this will be simple, we can use Onedrive/G suite/Dropbox/enter your cloud sharing platform of choice to create, share and collaborate on one document in one place. This will make sure the team is all aligned with each other’s contributions.” However, there’s one problem – your manager.
Upon hearing your/the team’s suggestion of what feels like the most logical approach in making use of the collaborative tools at your disposal, your manager rejects this idea and instead turns to an approach that not only confuses but frustrates you.
Your manager instructs that the team must communicate all contributions in their own separate documents and send to him via email, this way they are able to collate all the different data points and merge into one document which they will store on only their personal physical devices drive and share with the exec team.
First off, if you think the above problem statement is not a problem, then you need to read all of this article numerous times. Let’s look at why this is an issue:
- Multiple versions of the same file will be created and shared with several entities causing potential confusion and frustration at what info has been collected or missing, and not to mention the potential of info to easily go missing.
- There is no way to keep track of who has edited what and what has been updated when.
- A single point of failure with no cloud backup of this master file. So once it’s gone, it’s gone.
- It promotes over-communication and wasted time and energy from the whole team trying to narrow down who sends what and who will share what piece of info.
- The decision completely discounts the ability to make this process simpler and far more effective for all.
A key question to ask in these situations is, what causes this leader to choose this approach to the task? And in my experiences 9 times out of 10, it’s due to lack of knowledge and skills with workplace tech.
You see, in this example the most common answer I’ve got to when I’ve questioned said leaders on why they chose this approach is this – because they don’t understand how to use these tools and they want to do it the way that they’ve always done it (that last part is the most dangerous sentence a human can ever speak).
And the worst part, they don’t want to learn because they see asking for help in being shown how to do this by their teams and peers as a sign of weakness. One which will be held against them and cause their imaginary status to be eroded.
So, as I hope you can start to see, this problem becomes bigger than just acquiring the skills.
It’s rooted in the mindsets and behaviors of leaders today.
Let’s dive into a second example to hammer home my point.
#2: The productivity approach dilemma
You’ve probably seen this one before. The person who still uses complex excel spreadsheets to communicate simple data, or the person who refuses to stop using microsoft sticky notes as their daily notes and filing system, because OneNote, Teams, Slack and Evernote are just too hard to understand.
Although this applies to more people than leaders, they do seem to be the biggest culprits in my view when it comes to the mindset of “well, I’ve always done it this way, so this means it’s the best way for my team too” – dangerous territory as we already know.
You might be thinking right now, “why can’t they use these approaches if it works for them?” and, you’re right, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with people using an approach that works for them. But, it is a problem when they choose this approach because they refuse to be curious about evolving and exploring new ways to tackle everyday tasks.
Again, it’s a matter of mindset and behaviour. If we dig deeper, what we are really wanting leaders to adopt is the behaviour of curiosity. We want them to be curious in how they work, not only because it helps them, but it helps their team too.
It’s common for a team to follow and share their leader’s mindset in the workplace. If a leader doesn’t role model the right behaviours, then in most circumstances, the team won’t either.
I’ve always been puzzled when I’ve sat in project briefings and watched members of leadership teams present overly bloated plans on a drab excel spreadsheet, that evoke as much engagement as the crowded fields of data that are overpowering my eyes.
I think to myself, ‘that could have been simpler and far more engaging to an audience with MS Planner or a Trello type project tool’ – I always find myself sharing ideas like this with leaders, thinking that perhaps they aren’t aware of such tools. Yet, as before, 90% of the time, they know the tools exist, but it’s their lack of curiosity and attitude of ‘It’s too complicated for me to learn, I don’t have time’ that holds them back.
They say that they don’t have time to understand this complicated tool. But, it seems they do have time to confuse everyone else, notably their teams, with what they want to actually do.
This leads to many more wasted hours of meetings and conversations that take place because the leader was unable to use current tech to simplify their messages so that their audience knows what they need to know.
Of course, this is a small example of a rather larger problem when it comes to leaders not being curious and evolving their skill sets with the current environment.
The age of leaders being able to shun the world of emerging and current workplace technologies passed a long time back. The modern leader needs to adapt with the emergence of new tech in the workflow. Like I’ve already said, they need not be a master but they must be savvy enough to understand what certain technologies do and how they can improve their own workflow.
Tell me, what do I need to do, Sensei?
You may have got to this point and think, “Shit, I know all of this already, I see it all the time, I need answers man, how can I change this?”.
Great question, and it’s the key question. One which I will unpack with some ideas now.
Make foundation technology know-how a baseline requirement for leadership capability
This will mean different things to different workplaces, based upon your tech stack. What you can do, is agree upon a core set of tech know-how that all leaders must have. It could be something like knowing how Slack and MS Teams work as central collaboration tools in the workplace, or it might be a specific piece of workplace tech you use.
What matters, is that from day one, leaders are clear that this is the capability needed to be a leader at x company.
Make a digital skills programme/pathway/experiences a key part of ongoing leadership development
Another way to ensure the nurturing of the curiosity behaviour I mentioned, is in enabling an always-on learning mechanism so your leadership population has the resources and know-how to keep up with current and emerging tech.
If you want people to be curious and automatically pull to the content which will keep them capable, then you must role model it for them. This links back to an old saying that I’ve beaten to death over the years – if you build it, they won’t come.
To make sure that your leaders adopt a curious mind and invest in their tech know-how. Build it into their continual development and connect it to their workflow.
Make it part of their yearly objectives
Perhaps a tad extreme, you might think. But, sometimes for change to happen, one must make a dramatic statement.
I’m a firm believer that things like learning and performance support should be part of any leader’s objectives. Of course, you may disagree with me and that’s fine.
However, I’ve found in my experiences that linking an action to personal objectives can have a great effect on creating a behavior change. It’s not something you need to do forever either.
Once the behaviour is set in stone, this can be re-shaped or removed as the habit has become embedded into the workflow.
What next and why is all this even important?
Let me tackle the latter part of that first, the why.
It’s important because if your leaders cannot understand how to use and at least recognise the applications of basic technology, then they become a blocker to their own team.
You can’t have a high performing team without the right digital skills and if the person leading the charge is unwilling to evolve their own know-how, then you can bet that team is in trouble.
Productivity won’t be at its best and you get bet that star performers won’t stay for long being led by someone who can’t understand how to save a spreadsheet to OneDrive.
So, firstly, lack of digital skills in leadership can stifle innovation, capability and productivity across a workforce.
As for what’s next, I’ve left you with a few ideas to tackle this problem if it’s one you currently experience. It’s all fixable and most people will be open to receiving relevant know-how to help them become future-fit for their long term career opportunities.
You’ll meet resistance from some no doubt, and this will be something you’ll need to face within your own org’s approach. Be assured, that if leaders don’t evolve their digital skills, they will be left behind as the damage to innovation, capability and workforce productivity cannot suffer due to lack of curiosity.
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