Digital strategy is the cornerstone of any business – but how is it driven? Dr. Paul J. Bailo, Global Head of Strategy and Innovation at Infosys Digital, explores digital leadership.

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When it comes to digital leadership, people often become fixated on the software part of that – but you are somebody who believes that the human element is just as important.

Absolutely. I don’t see how any organisation in this current world could survive without a true digital leadership model, when digital is at the forefront of every business. With COVID-19 coming into play and people working from home, you really have to develop your digital talents in relation to digital leadership. How do you become part of an employee’s moral values? How do they hear your voice for leadership and guidance? And how do you do this without physically being next to that person? How do you actually lead in this world of digital without a physical person being there? In my experience, and my own research, one of the critical elements to being a real digital leader is to have vision.

How do I take these pieces of technology, people, and process and look towards the future, allowing us to get from point A to point B, while keeping us moving forward? Six months ago, some people were sort of thinking about digital, some organisations had digital in a box, some people had digital in the corner, and some people didn’t even have a Chief Digital Officer. Fast forward today, if you didn’t have a digital model when COVID-19 hit, you’re dead in the water. That kick in the butt is allowing businesses to see cracks and fractures in their leadership model, that they don’t have a digital leadership framework where they have a vision for digital, and that digital is everything.

What are the most important tools in a digital leader’s arsenal?

Creativity, and a great network. You have to have a big Rolodex; you have to have a big contact list in your phone. You have to have a great network of different people from different areas that you could call upon. You may need people in the artistic world, the academic world, the philosophical world. You may need high-end programmers. You need all these people at your beck and call and you need them to build these solid relationships in order to share the wealth of knowledge.

In my opinion, it doesn’t help a digital leader to network in the same area that they’re familiar with. They have to break out of their own shell and network and build deep relationships, working relationships, outside of their norm. A lot of people say, you’re in digital, so you’re going to go to the digital conference. That’s great; I love to go to the digital conferences, and I love to speak at them.

However, I also go to other conferences, which have nothing to do with digital or data. I’m interested in aerospace, so I go to aerospace conferences to see about what’s happening in the aviation space. I go to museums to see the world differently, where there might be something in that artwork that intrigues me, that gets my brain to be working and thinking about problems differently.

When we start talking about networking, digital leaders need to know that they have to expand their proficiency in networking. They need to look outside what they’re comfortable with.

The way a digital leader thinks is that the day something is successful is the day it’s antiquated, so you have to rewire your mind that it can always be better. And this is not new – this is how nature works, it’s called evolution. Everything is constantly changing for the better, depending on the environment, or depending on the conditions that we’re living in. So when you start thinking about the digital leadership, I don’t think it just comes naturally – it’s an art form. It’s something you have to work on, it’s something you have to rewire your brain for; you have to read about it, you have to be thinking about it, you have to be talking about it, and you have to collaborate with others.

What do you think are some of the pitfalls, or common mistakes people make, when it comes to successful digital leadership?

Great question. Number one is thinking you have the people’s support when you don’t; thinking you actually have the leadership and the inspiration of the people, when you don’t. Thinking that what you suggested works without testing it out and trying it first. Talking without substance or an understanding of the data, and having the ability to talk to people but not really having empathy for them. People are smart, and they want to know that you’re going to walk through fire with them.

The idea of leaders considering themselves to be in a position of power – those days are over. People don’t want that; they want a leader who’s at the front, who’s going to be with them day and night to make sure things work. They want someone to are for and love them, who has the vision, experience and knowledge to assess risks very quickly.

These qualities are not easily found; there’s a limited amount of people who can do this, but if you can communicate digital change and transformation in a way that really touches their hearts – in a way that people understand – they’re happier to take risks. I look for the pebbles in people’s shoes; a lot of people focus on the big pain points and miss the smaller ones, but as a digital leader, you need to understand. Then you can instil in them self-leadership, and show them that you’ll be there to pick them up if they take a risk and fail.

We’re hearing more and more about the advantages of failing, and that it should be seen as testing and progression.

I think we’ve all failed, right? Historically, everyone has failed, but many swept it under the rug because people weren’t rewarded for failing, and looked down upon it, but life is made for us to fail. If you have a newborn baby, as it develops, it starts to crawl. And then, eventually, it tries to stand up and immediately falls down. Then it says, wow, okay, I learned something: let me try this again. They keep trying.

This is who we are as humans. Failure is just part of how we learn; we’ve put a societal black cloud over it, but it’s how we were made. You don’t learn as much in your successes as your failures. So, in looking for a great digital leader, you want to make sure this person’s failed a lot and has been through everything, because that’s the person who sees around the corners.

What are the three most important attributes of a digital leader?

Number one, be human. Number two, have a vision that people can understand and believe in. Number three, be curious about data, technology, the world – be curious about many different things. It could shape your thinking in formulating the best digital transformation solution around.

This isn’t something you become overnight – for the best digital leaders, it’s who they are. They’re naturally curious, they already have vision, they gravitate towards technology and they love people. People have to really want to work with you, believe in you, trust you, and love you to do really great things.