ASK THE OD DOCTORS: What does it take to be a leader in the digital age?

Reflections and Thoughts by Dr. Lily Cheng

Founder and Chief OD Catalyst

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While pondering the topic of digital transformation, I was hoping to find some answers on Google - about how real leaders are surviving the digital transformation, or articles on how leaders can lead effectively in the new norm; but to no avail. Then I started to reflect: “What have I done to facilitate my continued role as a leader in my industry?" 

If you think about it, digital transformation is about organisational transformation as well, and the backbone of this transformation really lies in the ability of a leader to lead change.


As a leader, I realised I’ve to be really speedy, even much more than before. I used to be able to write an email to my staff and allow them time to process their thoughts on the issues raised so that we can serve our customers seamlessly.  Today, I’ve to focus on speed, as customers are on-demand and gone are the days that they’re able to give you longer lead-time. In this digital context, the problem is felt more acutely and customers place a premium on speed and the ability to respond under uncertain situations. I liken it to being able to take a regular train ride with my team in the past, and now it’s like riding on a bullet train!

Sense of Urgency

The need to push for business transformation has become integral to one’s survival or one’s market position, requiring staff to move from an operational mode to delivery mode to performing mode. A strong sense of urgency is even more critical now, especially in a differentiated workforce as Gallup has defined it: The engaged employees, the non-engaged employees and the actively disengaged employees.

  • How do you continue to engage the engaged employees to drive innovation and move the organisation forward? 
  • How do you continue to engage the employees who essentially aren't engaged or ‘checked out’, those who are simply sleepwalking through their workday with low levels of energy or passion?
  • How do you engage the actively disengaged employees who aren’t just unhappy at work, but who are even acting out their unhappiness and undermining what their engaged co-workers accomplish?

The task of instilling a sense of urgency becomes challenging as there’s a need to put in place the following:

  1. Creating buy-in of the strategy for the non-engaged and actively disengaged employees
  2. Clarifying the consequences of inaction, to the notengaged and actively disengaged employees
  3. Identifying causes of complacency and ways to minimise them
  4. Agreeing on deadlines for action
  5. Involving the engaged, not-engaged and actively disengaged - getting them to scan business challenges, helping them to be awakened to the realities of the business environment

Kotter in his book, “A Sense of Urgency”, explained that a true sense of urgency is rare; mainly because “it is not the natural state of affairs. It has to be created and recreated.” Therefore, the task of leading a team of people in a transformation at any level, will often require an ability to create an atmosphere of urgency that can be embraced, and in turn bringing about an atmosphere of achievement.

Kotter offered four fundamental tactics to establish a sense of urgency in any environment:

  1. Bring the outside in. A “we know best” culture reduces urgency; so help people see external opportunities.
  2. Behave with urgency every day.  Managers and leaders need to walk the talk and lead by example.
  3. Find opportunity in crises.  A well-leveraged crisis can be a valuable tool to break through complacency.
  4. Deal with the No-Nos. Address those who are always working hard to hinder change.

Sense of Purpose

A digital transformation may even be capable of eroding an organisation’s purpose of existence. Necessary resources that will be re-channeled may pose constraints to the organisation’s core strategic areas, resulting in conflicting priorities. Therefore, a leader has to regularly provide a clear picture of the future and communicate a sense of purpose to the employees. The display of a focused pursuit towards the organisation's vision is essential in keeping employees encouraged. 

A leader will then need to build the competence to inspire others on a daily basis: taking a few minutes to ask people how they’re doing, thanking them or encouraging them to do more, letting them know that their effort counts, and addressing employees’ gaps in their understanding of their new roles.

Sociodynamic Expert

A leader will need to understand the interactions among the multi-generational workforce that one is leading. There’s an increased need to build effective relationships between individual interactions and group-level behaviours; a key to creating synergistic outcomes at work. The leader needs to also appreciate diversity and inclusion, in order to minimise team conflicts.  Being able to skillfully integrate organisation protocols and processes with technology, without impeding collaboration within and across teams, requires one to create an inclusive environment at the workplace. One has to be mindful about the use of feedback to strengthen effective working behaviours among multi-generational teams, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

It's indeed a challenge for a leader to be a sociodynamic expert. Therefore, leaders at every level of the organisation must embrace the concept that "Leadership is everyone's business," to keep everyone happy in the organisation.

“Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Everymorning in Africa,  a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're the lion or a gazellewhen the sun comes up, you'd better be running.” When the sun is up,  let’s start running!

I would like to hear about the leadership successes that you’ve achieved, particularly in the area of digital transformation. Do write to me!