Digital & Technology

Leadership in the Digital Age

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The german proverb “der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf” translates into English simply as “the problem is at the top”. This notion that an outdated leadership style can be a company’s downfall, was discussed in depth with unique perspectives by the panelists, who all know what they’re talking about, when it comes to the transformation of leadership skills in the digital age.

For Prof. Dr. Manfred Broy this transformation started 25 years ago. Technology was developing so rapidly it soon became essential for making business. With the dissemination of digital tools, company cultures were pushed into new models as well. Today it comes as no surprise when Dr. Elisabeth Denison argues that the traditional model of hierarchical enterprises has switched to a network of corporations. But this is key to understand how differently leaders have to operate today in order to stay in business and guide their company successfully. Dr. Elisabeth Denison said that “workflows are more fluid, silos are broken up and employees have a greater opportunity to work with a diverse group of colleagues on projects with a faster turn around”.

How can leaders adapt to the digitisation of the business world?

So what are the right skills leaders need? Markus Haas believes that „whoever leads with the use of power and hierachy has already lost the digital transformation.“ On this the panelists agreed. Dr. Elisabeth Denison described this challenge as a balancing act because it’s not enough to use digital tools in a workplace but “leaders need to be able to give guidance to their employees as much as freedom.” Markus Haas took this idea of freedom a step further and said that it’s nothing less than the democratisation of data: “Everyone needs all access to all data of the company. Data analysis will become crucial for everyone, from accountant to CMO.”

This idea of democratising data within a company, being transparent and giving access to all employees, demands first and foremost a lot of trust. Prof. Dr. Manfred Broy elaborated that if there’s a culture of trust in a company it can go faster. “Leadership is not just about leading people but it means to understand the right direction to go in.”

Another piece of advice some leaders from the older generation might find hard to swallow is that, in Prof. Dr. Broy’s mind leaders are less important than they used to be: “A leader has to understand the technology and be able to explain it to the team.” This makes him or her a “first among equals” rather than the power wielding decision maker he or she used to be. Markus Haas supported this idea and described how at Telefónica Deutschland they practice an open office policy, barriers between employees and leaders are minimised.

Where is the Vision?

Although the panelists agreed on the positive effects of the decline of hierarchical structures, Prof. Dr. Broy used this opportunity of sitting on the DLD stage, and passed the ball up. He asked politicians (of whom many were in the room): “Where is the vision for a digitised work environment? “Leadership is also political leadership and I think we’re missing that a lot. People don’t define themselves as employees anymore, they lead much more interconnected lives with their jobs.”

With this call to action to define a future for the many leaders-to-be, Dr. Denison added that she advises job applicants not to ask how much they’ll earn but how the company will develop their skills, what is the company’s vision of them in 5 years? “Young people are still ambitious, they still look for monetary benefits, but they also live to work. Private and professional lives are merging because of enabling technology.”

While the passionate panelists gave insights into the dramatic and at times overwhelming changes businesses are experiencing, Markus Haas gave the audience some good piece of advice, or should we say a “mantra for leaders” on their way: “Listen, learn and let go.”

Mentioned in this article

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Manfred Broy
Bavarian Center for Digitization & Technische Universität München
Founding President & Professor of Information Technology
Bavarian Center for Digitization & Technische Universität München
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Markus Haas
Telefónica Deutschland Holding AG
Chief Executive Officer
Telefónica Deutschland Holding AG
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Elisabeth Denison
Chief Strategy & Talent Officer