Close-up Portrait of Woman with a glove covering her face
To retain employees, leaders need competencies in 4 areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management. PHOTO: Trinity Kubassek

Let's take a moment to knock digital off its pedestal and point out the obvious.

Technology isn't going to save your business from leaders with poorly developed personalities who lack the warmth, empathy and compassion to treat both customers and employees with respect.

Successful digital enterprises recognize excellence starts with leadership and company culture, explained Paul Miller, CEO and founder of strategic partner and boutique consultancy Digital Workplace Group (DWG).

The Modern Workplace

Excellent leaders embrace more than the latest technologies and embed cultural changes about work, work practices and company management.

Technology is redesigning the working world but persistent connection, access and information means there are few hidden places where leaders can remain isolated, distant or detached, Miller said.

"Running alongside the technology is a societal, demographic and global shift from work as pure income to work as also providing meaning — doing good in the world. I have called this a digital work ethic as part of a digital renaissance in work.

Paul Miller"So if leaders want to motivate people they must show a broader purpose in the organization as this allows people to feel of value and that their work has meaning. Yes, any leader can just focus on the financials and that is always necessary.

"But to not also include the non-financial value being created is to leave employees only firing on 30 percent of their energy when that number could be far higher."

Digital Workplace Experience

DWG maps, navigates and connects digital workplaces across the globe. Miller is based in London, but DWG doesn't have a permanent physical head office, relying instead on a worldwide geographically dispersed team.

This June, DWG will partner with Simpler Media Group (SMG) Inc. — the parent company of CMSWire and producer of the DX Summit — to produce a unique new conference, Digital Workplace Experience (#DWEXP17). The three-day event will bring influential digital workplace practitioners and technology innovators together to present solutions, strategies and best practices to a global audience.

The Leadership Evolution

Miller believes all businesses need to go digital or face extinction. But he believes just as strongly leaders have to change, too.

You can't automate your way to better workplace and customer engagement or expect integrated solutions to improve your bottom line without taking a hard look at your company culture.

  • Who are the leaders representing your brand?
  • Do they have the capacity to show concern and compassion?
  • Will they honestly say "thank you" to fellow employees for jobs well done and to customers who consistently reward them with their business?
  • Will they sincerely say "I'm sorry" when something goes wrong or cling to outdated notions that nothing is their fault?

"The main trait is to understand how leadership has now changed from dictate to influence; from command to conversation," Miller said.

"Simply to understand this shift in where power is located requires a degree of humility and a surrendering of control. Effective leaders require the perspective to move beyond their own ego and the preparedness to develop strength in those they lead.

"Being yourself — in buzzword terms, developing ‘authenticity’ — is a prerequisite. Showing your own vulnerability, strengths and weaknesses and working more openly are modern leadership essentials."

Compassionate Leadership Pays

Respect for employees and compassionate leadership is more than an exercise in human decency. It also affects the success and bottom line of a business.

Miller cited as examples Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever, Reid Hoffman, co-founder at LinkedIn and Tim Hötgges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom.

Polman decided sustainability must be central to the company and part of Unilever's DNA. "He didn’t achieve this through mandate or instructions but instead through a practical, yet inspiring, vision of what environmental practice means," Miller said.

Hoffman sees his role as helping leaders, managers and all staff know their direction and cultural mores. He enters collaborative conversations and uses internal social media to connect with workers globally, Miller said.

Hötgges encourages any employee to ask a question or initiate a discussion on any topic they like, no matter how difficult. Responses come directly from the CEO. "For even deeper interaction, there’s a request form to book a physical meeting with the CEO," Miller said.

All three, he continued, "connect in a broad empathetic and engaging way with their workforces and attribute part of the success of their companies to this way of leading.

"If I was being brutal (and I will let the companies remain anonymous but I know them well) there are two well-known organizations — one in the energy field and one in retailing that are disappearing through, in part at least, a persistent dismal level of leadership over several years."

The stars of the economic world at an organizational level — including Apple, Facebook, Nike, Verizon and IKEA, to name a few — all have leadership that attempts to treat their employees with compassion and respect, Miller said.

Tossing Childhood Baggage

Unfortunately, too many of us make the mistake of assuming all working adults (especially those in leadership roles) have baseline common sense courtesies.

But the notion of common sense is hardly common, and each of us arrive at adulthood shaped or misshaped by countless influences, from culture and geography to social, medical and family conditions.

Even as we tout the rise of the digital workplace, success at many companies seems to be tempered by those who haven't embraced the new paradigm Miller so eloquently describes.

Rather, it seems, they have internalized lines from books or movies and base their workplace behavior on distortions of the same.

They don't give a damn ... think they're king of the world ... and intrinsically believe leadership means never having to say they're sorry.

It makes for messy workplaces and untenable customer experiences — and tomorrow is just another day of the same dysfunctional stuff.

But it doesn't have to be.

Great Leaders Have High EI

To optimize their impact in a changing workplace as well as to motivate and retain workers, leaders need to develop their emotional intelligence (EI).

According to Laura Wilcox, director of management programs at Harvard Extension School, the ability to be an emotionally intelligent leader is based on 19 competencies in four areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

More simply, emotional intelligence means being aware of your own emotional reactions to situations and purposely understanding those feelings and reactions so you can react more effectively.

While some managers still downplay emotional intelligence as a touchy-feely, overly expressive soft skill, Wilcox calls it a key differentiator for success. Miller agreed.

"Too many leaders are still struggling with — or worse, ignoring — the clear call to adapt to the digital workplace. It's still new," Miller said. "There is a lack of confidence, a lack of familiarity, which breeds hesitancy to learn, apply or try. It's a normal response."

The good news: leaders are not as far from the Promised Land as they may fear, Miller said.

Once most leaders have an understanding of how today's digital workplace tools work and understand the value of digital presence as a leader, the gap closes fast.

Leadership Imperatives in the Digital Era

Now is the time for leaders to re-calibrate with new attitudes and actions for a digital world, Miller said.

How can they do that?

Embrace opportunities. Learn to establish trust and gain attention with those you lead, using your skills to enter into a dialogue, to join a conversation rather than command. Speak in your own voice and share true, honest realities.

Listen, with more heart and less judgment.

As daunting as it all may seem, it's nowhere near as scary as doing nothing — and watching your business increasingly fall behind.

(Interested in learning more about the challenges and opportunities impacting the new digital worlds where we work? Join us for Digital Workplace Experience June 19 to 21 at the Radisson Blu Aqua hotel in Chicago. Simpler Media Group, Inc., publisher of CMSWire and creator of DX Summit, and boutique consultancy Digital Workplace Group (DWG) are working as strategic partners to present #DWEXP17.)