Business Agility

Digital leadership: how leaders can drive innovation, engagement and collaboration

To drive innovation and engagement, leaders need to adopt principles of digital leadership. Read the interview with Sunnie J. Groeneveld, entrepreneur, to learn more.

Sunnie Groeneveld
Sunnie J. Groeneveld
Sunnie Groeneveld

In order to help organisations and people thrive in today’s fast-changing and technology-driven business environment, leaders need to develop new capabilities. Given the rate of technological change, digital innovation, and disruption, it is highly likely that digital leadership will grow in importance, especially with respect to strategic decision-making. 


So what is digital leadership? 

Digital leadership is far greater than merely leveraging technology, it involves joining strategy, culture, structure, technology, and data in order to fully embrace the opportunities of our increasingly connected world.  In order to succeed at this, a digital leader must have the ability to: 

  • Set vision rather than aspiration
  • Foster customer-centricity rather than being company-centric
  • Focus on outcomes rather than outputs alone
  • Inspire employees and boards alike to see the benefits of new ways of working

To delve deeper into the topic of digital leadership and explore its place in agile working practices, we invited Sunnie J. Groeneveld, entrepreneur, board member, speaker, and Associate Dean of Studies of the Executive MBA Digital Leadership at the HWZ University of Applied Sciences in Zurich, to share her view on what makes a digital leader successful in today’s world of business.


What constitutes a ‘digital leader’, and how do they differ from a traditional leader?

Sunnie J. Groeneveld: A digital leader minimises the risks of digital transformation while also maximising its added value for the organisation. To do so requires a new approach to leadership. In particular, digital leaders need to not only have a more in-depth understanding of technology, they also need to be more enthusiastic, inspirational, flexible, and more willing to take risks than earlier generations of managers in order to drive innovation forward. 

Moreover, they respond openly to new models of work, they understand the advantages of iteration as well as data-based decision making, and they combine this expertise with a high level of empathy and excellent communications skills, both virtual and face to face. Another crucial element of digital leadership is an entrepreneurial spirit and a high level of customer centricity across all channels. Digital leaders never stop learning and are slightly paranoid that a new digital innovation could disrupt their business model at any time.


What is the role of digital leadership in driving innovation and transformation in their companies? How should digital leaders best approach this challenge?

Sunnie J. Groeneveld: Leadership is best done by example. So for an organisation to engage in a comprehensive digital transformation process or drive a major innovation forward invariably requires leadership from the top. Throughout the innovation process the leadership approach I have found to be most effective is: 

Be more of a coach and less of a commander.

Sunnie J. Groeneveld

When you innovate, no single person has all the answers. This means you have to lead by asking the relevant questions and trust in your team as opposed to pretending you know all the right answers. When you lead as a coach, you inspire others to engage with your questions, fostering curiosity and openness, and enabling them to find new and better answers for the future of your business.


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You co-authored the book Inspired at work – 66 ideas for more engagement and innovation in corporations. Can you provide us with specific examples of how companies can increase the level of engagement and digital innovation, both amongst leadership teams and across the organisation as a whole?

Sunnie J. Groeneveld: One recipe and case study from the book covers a software solution we developed called Lunch-Lottery.com. It creates chance encounters across an organisation during the company’s lunch break whereby algorithms optimise for the best outcome. That means, LunchLottery might match a C-level executive with an apprentice, or a VP of marketing with a newly hired finance professional. Companies like LafargeHolcim or PwC use it to reduce internal silos and increase the connectivity across departments and hierarchy levels in their organisation.


Working practices are evolving quickly and digital innovation is becoming fairly commonplace. How do you envision the future of collaboration between leadership teams?

Sunnie J. Groeneveld: I envision a future where leadership teams recognise that engaging with ecosystems and networks collaboratively – be this internally across hierarchies and departments or externally across industries and sectors – benefits their business success. Besides that I envision leadership teams to be ever more digitally connected, working collaboratively from anywhere thanks to documents in the cloud, useful meeting management tools for leaders like Sherpany , as well as video conferencing solutions. 

In the future, perhaps, leaders will hold meetings in virtual reality where each participant is represented by an avatar.


Why is speed important in the modern business environment? And how can digital leadership increase the speed of decision-making processes?

Sunnie J. Groeneveld: Speed is of essence especially when it comes to dealing with disruptive innovation. One of the major challenges of our time is keeping up with the pace of digital change and actively anticipating disruptive technological developments.

In terms of speeding up the decision-making process, I recommend reading Jeff Bezos’ Letter to Shareholders in which he explains how high velocity decision making works at Amazon. His main points are that 'many decisions are reversible and therefore can be taken faster than you might initially realise.' 

Second, he recommends that most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. He argues that if you wait for 90%, in most cases, you are probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognising and correcting bad decisions. If you are good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, he says, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure. Third, he recommends to use the phrase ‘disagree and commit’ whenever discussions are going too much in circles, which he explains in further detail in the aforementioned shareholder letter.


Regarding recent trends in terms of digital innovation, engagement, and collaboration: What do you recommend digital leaders to focus on in 2020?

Sunnie J. Groeneveld: In 2020 and beyond leaders should focus more on the fact that technological change goes hand in hand with corporate cultural change: you cannot have one without the other.

A simple example of how these two areas are inextricably linked is the following: a CTO can decide to roll out the best-in-class, cloud-based, data-driven collaboration platform. If the organisation operates in silos and is plagued by mistrust amongst employees, the project will fail to realise its potential.

Digital transformation is first and foremost a human-driven change process.

Sunnie J. Groeneveld

You cannot invest in new technologies without also simultaneously investing in people development and organisational change. So I recommend leaders to focus on that dichotomy for 2020, not just from an intellectual point of view, but from an economic one, too. It is the only way to lasting innovation, engagement, and collaboration.

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About the author
Ms Sunnie J. Groeneveld is an entrepreneur, board member, author, and speaker. She is the founder and managing partner of the consultancy Inspire 925 as well as a board member of three Swiss companies.