Rewind 15 years and HR’s role in business was far from set; the profession was looking to position itself on the executive team but was still shaking off its “hire and fire” image. HR had certainly helped the transactional wheels of business turn but did not add much value in terms of strategic workforce planning, future forecasting or data-driven decision-making.

Leaping forward into 2018, things have certainly changed. Empowered by the insights gleaned from people data, HR can now take the lead on advising the business on the human element of any significant business change – whether it’s launching a new product or service, expanding overseas, undertaking a merger or acquisition, or downsizing.

And of course, there’s the role HR plays today in helping the workplace navigate through the digital age. For HR to take a leadership role in this age, a new set of skills is required. Digital leaders lay the groundwork for digital transformation. They must be able to engage and communicate with key stakeholders (both internal and external) in deciding, designing and delivering the digital organisation.

Digital leaders need to outline the costs, benefits, and how to mitigate the risks of digital transformation, and decide on the types of change management interventions that are needed to guide the organisation along the journey.

Sounds daunting.

Sure enough, today only 5% of companies feel they have strong digital leaders in place, according to Deloitte’s 2017 Global Human Capital Trends survey. Different research from Capgemini[1] indicates that despite the huge investments being made in digital transformation projects, which is set to exceed $2 trillion by 2021, organisations feel less equipped with the right leadership capabilities than they were 6 years ago (45% in 2012 compared to 35% in 2018).

Of course, HR themselves can be digital leaders, but they also need to be able to identify digital leaders elsewhere in their organisation, and provide them with the appropriate tools, skills and support.

What skills and knowledge are required for a digital leadership role? Deloitte[2] gathered information from organisations that have successfully undertaken digital transformations. Here are the essentials required:

  • A comprehensive understanding of the digital market
  • A visionary mindset to develop solutions to potential disruption
  • A champion mentality to promote and gain buy-in for digital initiatives
  • Financial acumen to quantify value and return on investment
  • Business savvy to manage the push and pull tension between cross-functional teams
  • Management capacity to effectively operate the digital team
  • An entrepreneurial spirit to continuously innovate products and manage the product or service lifecycle and the user experience

What leadership qualities are needed to thrive in this era? Surprisingly, despite the digital age being unchartered waters for many people, there is significant overlap with traditional leadership qualities as defined by business gurus such as Ken Blanchard and Stephen Covey. These include:

  • Adaptability: Flexibility and adaptability are essential to provide people with the freedom required to innovate and allow for individual styles and work preferences
  • Tolerance: Nothing is set in stone in the uncertain digital future; therefore, encouraging experimentation, ideation and, yes, mistakes to be made, are all critical
  • Mobility: Champion the use of digital tools and media, and enable flexible and contingent working hours
  • Leadership at all levels: Digital leaders should provide a degree of direction to employees and remove barriers to progress
  • Collaboration: Working across borders, departments and organisations (even the competition) is increasingly critical. Digital leaders should be able to bring together different parties and people to leverage varied and diverse skill sets for collaboration and problem solving
  • Decision-making: The key is to make quick, data-based decisions, and to develop the right team to provide key insights as required. On occasion, they should be able to make decisions based on limited or incomplete data
  • Communication: Digital leaders are highly visible and accessible. They communicate frequently with colleagues across grades and levels using a variety of channels
  • Feedback: Digital leaders provide real-time feedback and reward individual and team achievements

There’s one final quality shared between “old school” leaders and digital leaders: the ability to be a visionary. Technology is rapidly changing; it’s dynamic and it can be overwhelming. How can one be a visionary in such a world? A digital leader needs to be able to foresee the likely outcomes of what is implemented today and how far today’s decisions will take the organisation. Just as critically, the digital leader must have a vision in order to inspire others. They need to be great storytellers; stories not only carry emotions which can be used to inspire others, but they can also bring to life inanimate theories.

The above qualities, skills and knowledge will help digital leaders to get early adopters onside early, and buy time to give doubters the chance to acclimatise and then embrace the changes wrought by the digital era.


ELMO Cloud HR & Payroll has helped hundreds of organisations in Australia and New Zealand embark upon a digital HR transformation journey. To find out more about ELMO’s cloud HR & payroll software suite, or to request further information, contact us.


[1] “Understanding digital mastery today: Why companies are struggling with their digital transformations”, Capgemini Digital Transformation Institute research paper

[2] “The changing role of people management in the digital age”, Deloitte research paper

Learn more about how ELMO can help your organisation.
Learn more about how ELMO can help your organisation.