Digital Leaders

What makes a Digital Leader happily successful?

Tes shops, Culture and Digital Leaders

I recall a sunny morning from twelve years ago. I stand outside my new Organization sipping hot tea. It’s a small chai shop, the kind you see outside every IT building. You can have swanky facilities and supercomputers, but you need that Tea and smoke shop. It’s the shop that elevates an organization to level 5 maturity. But I digress. 
I am talking with Mr.Srivatsan, a much-loved and well-read Industry leader. He shares unconditionally, making him the go-to person of choice. He is giving me an insider view. He shows me the roses and the pimples. And points out the Movers and Shakers. He is teaching me the Company culture. Like Drucker said (or didn’t – depending on who you ask), “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast.”
We caught up again recently. We were ten years older, and Google Meet had replaced the chai shop. But when you said that, you said it all. Everything else was as before. Srivatsan lucidly outlined his views on what made a leader successful today. It was a cultural discussion for the Digital world.

Who is a “good” Digital Leader?

Bad leaders are easy to spot. They derail programs and spoil culture. Good leaders come in all sizes, shapes, and flavors. We cannot define them, but we can call out common traits.

The leader has lost the forward button!

Today, a leader has to own things up and deliver. She cannot play postwoman. Now, this does not require her to a James Bond battling impossible villains with assorted tools. Enjoy this clip before we continue!

The Digital Leader T Profile

Digital leaders have a T profile. They are a specialist in one area and have a healthy appreciation of everything else. This profile helps her get a full picture and execute well. Knowledge of business models and team skills are vital too.
Digital Leader T Profile

Wanted: Swiss-knife Digital leaders (aka Grounded, hands-on, team-players)

The time of Hierarchies and huge teams is over. Structures are flat. Ladders are being replaced with complementary “Circles of competence.” The ladder has a boss calling the shots. In the circle, every node is essential. The nodes need to interact well for success. Leaders need to facilitate such interaction among a high-knowledge-peer-group.
Small teams and time-bound outcomes call for a participative leader. She pitches in where required, steps back at other times. Her role is to facilitate success. Think about a day in the kitchen. You may be an expert at chopping veggies. But when required, you wash vessels and lay the table. The goal is an enjoyable meal.
Every quarter, Divakar reviews his CV and identifies gaps. Seeing himself from a leader’s eyes is transformative. Archana meets yearly with a few mentors outside her hierarchy. She seeks input on her journey to becoming a powerhouse leader. When a leader is her own best critique, she’s unstoppable.

He who experiments wins

“Fail early. Fail often” is now a mantra. Leaders should experiment relentlessly. Amazon’s approach is worth emulating.

One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins. To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there. Outsized returns often come from betting against conventional wisdom, and conventional wisdom is usually right. Given a ten percent chance of a one hundred times payoff, you should take that bet every time. But you’re still going to be wrong nine times out of ten. We all know that if you swing for the fences, you’re going to strike out a lot, but you’re also going to hit some home runs. The difference between baseball and business, however, is that baseball has a truncated outcome distribution. When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score one thousand runs. This long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.
Invent and Wander (pp. 134-135). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

What new for a Digital Leader now?

Two key factors have forever changed a Digital leader’s role. Competition has evolved into co-opetition (cooperative competition). And data-based decisions are now the norm.
I think we can stop here – we are sold. But how do we go about practicing this skill?

“Co-opetition” not “Competition”

Competition is no longer an enemy. We can partner and compete at the same time. For instance, Apple sources parts from Samsung while competing with it. The Airbnb platform hosts Boutique Hotels too. We need to put the end customer at the center of our approach. That’s all that matters.
Leaders realize it’s not always a zero-sum game. We all win if we work together. The best partners, tools, and processes working together create world-class experiences.

Digital leaders show; they don’t tell!

Today’s world is one of progress. Customers don’t like the hard sell. They prefer action. Therefore, leaders should “show rather than tell.” This requires a mindset of MVP (Minimum Viable Products). We develop an MVP and get feedback. We then iterate. Over time, we have ourselves a winning product.
Iteration requires we show progress, not just status. What does the feedback say? What features can be delayed or dropped? Does the client like it? How should we tune our market messaging? Who else should we partner with? Standard Red/green/amber status documents won’t cut it in today’s world.

Facts and story – check!

Successful leaders can take the facts and weave them into a story. This is not easy, but learnable. Which brings us to the last point.

How do you evaluate a project, a person, or a situation?

Traditionally, the HIPPO (the Highest Income Paid Person’s Opinion) proposed – and decided on everything. If he liked someone, they prospered. He used gut feel to identify the next big thing. Harried middle-level leaders then created business cases!
Today, with data becoming pervasive, facts are our guiding principle. Customer feedback for a related product, tweets of premium users, venture capital investment trends, social trends – all come together to help us make the right decision.

Digital leaders follow the 70% rule

Delayed decisions are as bad as no decisions. So we have to move forward. Jeff Bezos’s 70% rule is a great bet.

Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90 percent, in most cases, you’re probably being slow. Plus, either way, you need to be good at quickly recognizing and correcting bad decisions. If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.
Invent and Wander (p. 150). Harvard Business Review Press. Kindle Edition.

Evaluating people is a vital skill.

Traditionally, people evaluation was a subjective exercise. Biases slipped in, unnoticed by the supervisor himself. For example, an excellent last quarter could override an average year for an employee. And when the reverse happened, appraisal time turned to heartburn time!
Tracking Goal achievements is part of the solution. Systemic effects have to be factored in too. For instance, an associate can hardly be blamed for an adverse impact due to COIVD. It’s for the leader to periodically assess his team and fine-tune goals.
For small teams, teamwork is as essential as individual performance. Digital leaders should insist on Team goals and rewards.

Digital leaders decide more on data

Today’s leader has access to multiple sources of information. Much Quantitative data is available – performance against goals, contribution to Organization, learning, and so on. She also has access to unstructured data that can be mined. For instance, community systems capture colleague and client feedback and are often gamified. Clients have opened out their innovation ecosystems. Open-source frameworks are mainstream. It is essential to capture team and employee participation in these communities and forums. Contribution to the community of practice – academia, institutional bodies can also be considered.
Performance Appraisal was a 70% intuition, 30% data exercise for a long time. Today’s leaders can do 70% data and 30% intuition. The model is transparent, and everyone knows what’s successful behavior.

And in summary

We are already into our third cups of tea when we finish. As always, Srivatsan’s conversations provide much food for thought. Especially if you are a Digital leader, the characteristics he calls out are worth internalizing.
Should you have further questions for him, please feel free to reach him at You may also want to check out his website. He runs a popular course for leaders with the tagline “Transforming to Digital (Assurance) – An Experiential journey through mentorship. Building Relevance for Assurance fraternity.”


  1. Refreshing approach – summarizing an intellectual discussion. Quite different from other essays 🙂

    Leaders “show” – dont just tell – great point. Fully agree. I also liked the quote “Successful leaders can take the facts and weave them into a story.” very much. Once we master this, I believe there is no need for further selling. Will be using this quote going forward.

  2. Very insightful. I Loved co-opetition concept, very unique and refreshing and the need of the hour. The articulation about T curve was also interesting!!

  3. Lovely read and it revitalizes some salient things that we miss often. Thanks for the write it helps to get ready for 2021.

  4. A fantastic read in morning, I’m lucky to experience most of these thought processes while working with you 🙂
    Looking forward more such articles 😀

  5. Awesome post Subra. With digital all over the place an equipped leader to take us through the digital journey is essential, the post has all key pieces together to learn and grow. The T shaped is signature Subra style 👌 love the “she” “her” takes on leadership, simply awesome.. Jacinda Angela fans round the world should be happy 😀

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