Leadership in the Digital Era

As the world moves towards a more distributed and diverse working environment, leadership takes on a new meaning. It begins to apply to everyone because it needs to become a mindset, not just a skillset. During an ONUG Fall 2020 session, these four women discussed concepts that every leader should keep in mind:

  • Radia Perlman, Dell Fellow
  • Linda Tai, Senior Vice President – Chief Architect at Fannie Mae
  • Rosalind Radcliffe, Distinguished Engineer at IBM
  • Suzan Mahboob, Session Chair and Lead Programs Engineer, Blizzard Entertainment

The session opened with each participant talking about one of the challenges facing leaders in the digital era.

Encourage Innovation

People tend to think of innovation as something totally new; however, Rosalind suggested that innovation has two forms, both of which require “out-of-the-box” thinking. Continuous improvement requires innovation. If we look at how business is functioning with a more distributed workforce, leaders need to encourage team members to think differently about how they do their jobs. For example, people should be encouraged to share how they approach juggling home and work tasks when they occur in the same space.

Focus on Problems

Technology loves buzzwords, but sometimes the buzz gets in the way of identifying the problem, according to Radia Perlman. For example, what is cloud-native? The term has taken on many meanings, making it easy for people to miss the problem the technology is trying to address. She suggests looking at the problem and then deciding which technology best solves it. Often, issues are disguised by questions such as “What can we do with blockchain?” Instead, people should be asking how we can secure the supply chain before deciding on a technology to address the problem.

Asking questions is central to focus on problems; yet, many people are afraid to ask questions. Leaders need to create environments where questions are encouraged. It is essential to explore problems before deciding on a course of action.  

Create a Security Mindset

Radia also pointed out that the technical community needs to stop blaming the user for failures in security. As Rosalind said, hackers have become so good at replicating legitimate emails and websites that it is hard for people to know when something is malicious. Instead of expecting the user to make the distinction, developers need to employ a security-by-design philosophy. 

Suzan suggested that security is often added at the end of a development cycle rather than at the beginning. That makes it seem like an afterthought rather than a critical piece of the technology. Emphasizing security makes it a priority when it comes to system design.

Linda pointed out that security needs to be everyone’s responsibility. Whether it is a developer, a tester, or a user, security needs to be front and center. Leaders must reinforce that mindset by being willing to put security first when setting delivery deadlines. Delaying a release by a few days to ensure it’s secure sends a message to everyone that security is a priority. 

Require Transparency

As employees, suppliers, and partners continue to work at a distance, transparency becomes more important. Leaders need to be more open with everyone about what companies are trying to accomplish. They should share problems so people can collaborate on possible solutions. Internally, employees can share how they do things.

Suzan used herself as an example. She recently moved into a new work environment where she was unfamiliar with the culture and how things were done. Because everyone was working remotely, she was having difficulty adjusting. In an office setting, she would watch how others used applications or scheduled meetings, but in a remote environment, that wasn’t possible. She needed employees to be more transparent in how they accomplished their assignments.

Suzan realized she needed to be transparent in letting her coworkers know that just answering her questions wasn’t enough. She needed more context to be able to use the information she was receiving. Once both sides understood the problem, they were able to address the issue.

Recognize Responsibility

All participants felt that the technical community as a whole needed to take more responsibility for technology and how it is used. For example, AI and machine learning can identify what an individual likes and thinks. As a result, people are fed more and more information that reinforces their likes and beliefs without regard for accuracy. People lose the ability to discover opposing views and to embrace diversity.

Rosalind hoped that technology would be used for good. For example, technology could start looking at solutions that would help teachers improve learning outcomes in virtual classrooms. Perhaps companies could develop tools that required less technical knowledge or were more secure to use.

Leadership in the Digital Age

Leadership is inspiring and motivating a group of people to exert themselves to help achieve a common goal.

Solving problems in innovative ways requires leadership. People may not see a wide-screen TV or a streaming service as solving a problem, but they are. Take Netflix, for example, today it is a multi-million dollar corporation because it began by identifying a problem no one knew they had—movie rentals.

Today’s leadership needs to focus on what problems are being solved. If leaders are going to motivate people, they need to set goals that have value. More and more, employees want their work to have meaning. 

Employees want to work for companies that are willing to act in socially responsible ways. Part of that effort involves transparency. Leaders must be honest and authentic if they want to inspire and motivate people.

In the digital age, leadership has to be more about the process of leading. Leaders must focus on the human aspects of reaching a common goal. If you’re interested in learning more about leadership in the digital age, join us at ONUG Spring 2021, May 5-6, as we continue the discussion, or contact us by clicking here.

Author's Bio

Joann Varello

CMO, ONUG