Organisations that are successful in their digital transformation are able to redefine their business and make digital more than just a tagline. Digital processes, digital engagement, and digital strategy pervade every aspect of their operations. These organisations recognise that being digital involves far more than new technology. They understand that digital success relies ultimately on how they organise, operate, and behave.

Supporting these activities, these organisations display certain traits including their ability to collaborate, innovate, utilise data, and operate with evolving and flexible team structures, to name a few. These traits are challenging the traditional manager, requiring more flexible and adaptive leadership styles.

Many organisations are reimagining their workforce structures through network-based teams that are cross-functional and agile with limited or skill-based hierarchies, requiring different leadership skills. What makes a leader generally great, remains unchanged, however, in a digital organisation we see a greater emphasis on some key attitudes and capabilities. In understanding these traits, we first need to understand what some of the attributes of a successful digital-first origination are.

Digital organisation

There is no consensus about what a digital-first organisation is: some might argue it is about having digital capabilities and investment in place, while others may say it requires having a certain level of digital maturity. Some will think it is about having a business model founded on digital, and others may even say that it is more concerned with having a digital-first mindset and culture. The reality is they are all valid descriptions depending on the organisation in question. That is why “digital transformation” can invoke such emotional conversation between practitioners.

Here are some of my thoughts on the various characteristics of a digital-first organisation:

They have a flatter organisation, with a less hierarchical culture

Digital organisations operate at a pace. Hierarchical organisations with multiple layers of management can lead to a risk-averse culture, stifling innovation and making it difficult to be truly agile and enable quick decision-making. Digital tools make it quick and easy for all layers in an organisation to communicate directly with each other; there is simply no need to have several layers of management to get a decision finalised or to action something. Similarly, digital tools that everybody can access, encourage transparency and accountability, reducing the need for micro-management.

They have a culture of digital innovation

Digital is a catalyst for innovation. Digital-first organisations often have a culture of innovation, with a desire to experiment and create new products, services and ways of working. Digital maturity often provides the opportunity for innovation, with more tools available for employees to implement new ideas. When these digital possibilities are in place, employees can take inspiration from successful examples of digital innovation by seeing ideas being taken seriously. The impact on organisational culture becomes truly transformative, with a spirit of innovation permeating the organisation.

They use data to drive continual improvement

Digital organisations know that through the execution of digital transactions, valuable data is produced. From this data, organisations can create analytics and dashboards to gain insights to make improvements, as well as support rapid decision-making. Digital organisations tend to exploit data more actively, not only because data is more easily available to them, but also because they have the digital platforms to easily act upon insights and make subsequent improvements. When this happens, empowered teams use measurement to support continual improvement, using data to manage risk.

Hyper-automation of processes

They leverage automation as every opportunity to improve productivity. Digitally mature companies which have gone through digital transformation have often already digitised manual processes to drive efficiency, time-saving and lower costs. However, true digitally mature organisations continually look for improvements, leveraging automating where they can. The collective benefits of the improved processes brought about by hyper-automation are understood and are proactively sought.

Attention to digital literacy and upskilling

They understand that the digital literacy of the workforce is crucial to driving the level of innovation and change desired. To get the very best out of digital tools, employees need the skills, knowledge, and confidence to be able to put them to the very best use. Digital-first organisations take the time to invest in learning, training and ongoing support in this area to make sure employees can productively utilise the digital workplace. Another significant trait is that staff upskilling is driven by the staff themselves, ensuring they are preparing themselves for the future workplace.

A customer-centric approach

Digital-first organisations tend to be very customer-focused, leveraging direct feedback to drive improvements. With customer interactions becoming increasingly digital, particularly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a focus on digital and customer service tends to go together. Being customer-centric means having good data to understand your customers to improve their experiences. Having more digital touchpoints with customers means organisations can gain valuable insights from data, allowing them to drive improvements and implement a customer-centric approach to everything they do.

Optimal digital employee experience

There is evidence supporting a strong link between employee experience and customer experience. Digital-first organisations know that if their employees don’t have a good experience in their day-to-day work, it will impact customer experiences. True digital businesses invest strongly in a good digital employee experience because they know it has an overall impact on everything from employee turnover to profitability and how customers feel about their brand.

Traits of Digital leadership

Digital leadership is important as it helps an organisation create business processes that allow new technologies, products and services to be delivered quickly. In supporting a digital-first organisation new leadership styles are required as leaders adjust to their new expectations.  Digital leadership becomes a balancing act that requires a unique set of skills to drive success for the leader in question, their organisation and their workforce. Digital leadership helps make sure the organisation has the right skill set and mindset to take advantage of these opportunities. 

In a digital-first organisation, digital leaders are willing to explore how digital opportunities can be used to help an organisation become more responsive to customer needs and changing business requirements. They understand the importance of taking responsibility for supporting digital innovation and continual improvement through data.

With this in mind, an effective digital leader will be aware of the business goals and knows how their responsibilities support them. These digital leaders will also explore how technology can be used to help the business become more responsive to the needs of their customers and their ever-changing business requirements.

This is the value of digital leadership, so what do I think are some of the key traits. Digital leaders are:


A digital leader is not just one who helps an organisation find modern alternatives to legacy systems. They are also the ones who approach problems with an open mind and show great curiosity in their work. A digital leader is someone who has the compass for driving results, becoming the catalyst for change, and staying ahead of any new developments in their company or industry – all while keeping an eye on tomorrow. This is one of the pivotal traits that make digital leaders stand out from the rest. In any agile organisation, the vision provides a common understanding of the strategic goal, enabling staff to be empowered to act.



Digital evangelism is the art of getting people on board with digital opportunities in an organisation. As much as digital transformation is about utilising technology, it’s equally about influencing culture change and behaviours. Digital evangelists serve as visionary leaders in driving digital opportunities and delivering the organisation’s business strategy.



Effective decision-making is the lifeblood of any organisation and is important in any context. Being able to make the decisions as quickly as possible, based on limited information, can make the entire organisation run more smoothly. That also means the digital leader must be comfortable with getting decisions wrong and be able to learn and adjust in response.


Technically savvy

‘I don’t understand that techy stuff, that’s the IT Department’ is a statement leaders can’t afford anymore. Digital leaders don’t just have to work with new technologies, they need to embrace the new digital approach within their organisation. They need to lead their organisations in a quest to understand the impact new technologies might have on the business, their people and customers. Leaders don’t have to become tech experts, but they must become tech-savvy and digitally fluent.


Open and transparent

Embedding a digital mindset means that everyone in the company – regardless of their role – is aware of the impact digital can have on themselves and productivity. Open collaboration encourages all participants to share their insights for maximum organisational impact. These behaviours start at the top, improving communications and trust with staff. This encourages staff to talk about their work and learn from others so that they can subsequently apply this knowledge to their work.



Putting pace and innovation ahead of tried and tested technology, exposes organisations to an increased level of risk-taking. Resilience is the human capacity to meet adversity, setbacks and trauma, and then recover from them. Resilient leaders have the ability to sustain their energy level under pressure, cope with disruptive changes and adapt. They bounce back from setbacks. They also overcome major difficulties without engaging in dysfunctional behaviour or harming others.


It should be clear from what’s been outlined above, that leadership is an essential function within the management of a digital-first organisation.

Next steps

This article has outlined the qualities and required traits of a digital leader but to summarise, I’ve repeatedly seen that setting an example for others to follow, sharing your vision with the business, and possessing digital leadership skills are key traits. Good communication skills and decision-making also play a key role in the success of a digital leader.

Digital leadership, like any new skill set and mindset, requires development. Assuming a good general leader will be a good digital leader, will limit digital adoption and undermine organisational transformation.  The best way to make sustainable, meaningful change, to an agile adaptive organisation happen, is to actively experiment with new approaches – learn by doing.

Begin experimenting in different ways, for example:

  • Testing collaboration methods and viability of online learning sessions.
  • Testing new ways of accessing and sharing critical information and procedures.
  • Implementing analytics to identify and understand customer data.
  • Developing new relationships within the organisation, bringing their voices into decisions around digital.

The value and impact of experimentation like this can go far beyond whatever the practical focus happens to be. The experiments are starting points – the beginning of an ongoing process of testing, evidence-gathering, analysis and adjustment to develop digital leadership and, ultimately, to build an organisation’s digital capability.

Next Steps

If you would like to talk more about the challenges of digital transformation and how to get started with your digital leadership journey, contact me via the link below.