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A lesson from English rugby – relearning leadership for the digital age

(Image credit: Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock)

Given the outcome of this year’s Six Nations tournament, it is easy to forget how far English rugby has come since the disastrous group stage exit from a World Cup that took place on English soil back in 2015. Was it a failure of leadership or something else at work? It’s hard to say, but no one can doubt that strong leadership from new manager Eddie Jones has sparked a revolution in the team’s fortunes. 

In the ultra-professional sporting era, coaches realise the importance of nurturing a progressive culture and using technology to help teams improve. GPS tracking devices, drones, and apps have infiltrated many UK rugby clubs and changed the way coaches lead and train their players. And, although many businesses are having similar epiphanies, management often lacks the confidence to lead boldly into the digital age with these new tools and technologies. While there is no denying that data, platforms and automation will power the new ‘machine’ for work and the people that use it, relearning leadership (opens in new tab) remains key because people still matter.   

Moving the goalposts 

Leadership and strong management shape a company’s destiny. It’s needed now more than ever because the shift into digital — new technologies, new tools and new ways of working — call for a fresh approach to leadership that ensures firms navigate through the disruption.   

We think new approaches to leadership are emerging, but too slowly. In Cognizant’s Work Ahead (opens in new tab) study, which interviewed over two thousand business executives and their counterparts from middle management, those in management reported a lack of clarity surrounding their firm’s digital strategy from those above them. This ranked as one of the biggest obstacles to successfully completing the shift to digital and transforming the business.   

Crucially, transforming an organisation does not necessarily require costly, wholesale changes. A unifying vision of what the organisation — or team — could achieve can work wonders, while new technologies can be used to streamline and improve working methods. After all, England’s Eddie Jones maintained the backbone of his squad, making selective personnel adjustments and adding new systems instead of tearing up the team. Leading in the digital age is as much about fostering the right culture and getting buy-in from your team as anything else. It is about empowering existing employees with innovative tools and motivating them to embrace change; getting them ready for the work ahead. 

Build an early lead 

So where to start? Well, there are certain principles leaders can use when it comes to modern work. It is no secret why companies such as Amazon, Google and Alibaba have experienced so much success. All of them have grown around a ‘platform mind-set,’ basing their business models on the foundation of data-driven insights. These platforms aren’t just for the digital upstarts however—larger legacy firms are beginning to organise work in similar ways as platforms enable leaders to develop entirely new value propositions and business models. 

However, introducing  new technologies and basing business models around them is no easy task and often, cultural and personal obstacles come from internal sources. Therefore, leaders must also re-consider how power courses through an organisation, to prevent established hierarchies from crushing new ideas. Introducing smaller teams can solve this by cutting across disparate market segments. Alternatively, giving employees the freedom to come together to solve a specific problem can encourage cross-company collaboration. 

Victory is all in the prep! 

Strong leadership goes hand in hand with decent preparation and winning a championship depends on it. Given the evolving nature of markets, technologies, consumers, and employees, changes in leadership approaches are critical. We believe the following aspects of leadership behaviour must be addressed to accelerate the shift into digital:    

Vision matters – does your business have an idea of what its vision should be, and a plan to realise it? Beyond those at the head of an organisation, this also means ensuring employees understand and are prepared for change, and are also embracing new concepts 

Rethink how power works – traditional command and control structures and silo-based mentalities will prevent success against more agile competitors. Businesses should experiment with flatter and more fluid structures, rotating staff among different teams to give them time away from the ‘mother ship’ 

Work hard to break down silos – smaller, multi-dimensional teams with sales, marketing, product development and technology staff located together to focus on a specific segment or customer need can tear down internal walls 

Know your tech – it's time for leaders to make friends with start-ups. Leaders must harness technology, such as AI and IoT, and collaborate with start-ups, if necessary, to stay at the cutting edge 

Fight the zombie organisation – large organisations are a breeding ground for complex, unwieldly cultures. This can manifest itself as paranoia and complacency, which must be resisted at every turn. Just as Eddie Jones appointed Dylan Hartley as captain to inspire a new culture, engaging select employees to buy in to a more digital approach to doing business can help lead the charge 

The job of a leader is to leave his or her organisation or team in a better place than where he or she found it. It’s a tough gig because businesses are at a pivotal juncture as the shift into digital continues. We see some leaders sensing the opportunity, while others are buckling under the pressure of fast-changing technology, intensifying customer expectations and waves of hungry start-ups snapping at their heels. The role of the leader has never been this complex, difficult or uncertain, or more important. 

Regardless of the Six Nations defeat, the new mentality of English rugby is ultimately defined by the attitude that getting better never stops. Whether creating the perfect digital customer experience or chasing rivals like the All Blacks, the pursuit of excellence cannot be based on anything less. In the business world, it is this continuous innovation, collaboration and experimentation with new approaches which make up the ingredients required to re-imagine how work gets done. That is how organisations can reach the top of their game. 

Euan Davis, European Lead at Cognizant’s (opens in new tab) Center for the Future of Work 

Image Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

Euan Davis is the European Lead for Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work, which provides original research and analysis of work trends and dynamics.