Jeremy Lewis, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales

Strengthening your leadership skills will help you navigate the new digital landscape, states the Academy of Professional Development at ICAEW.

The digital revolution will not be televised

Whether you are digitising claims handling, introducing robotic process automation (RPA) into your back-office, or enabling customers to self-serve through online portals or apps on their phones, it is likely you are feeling some anxiety and stress from the ever-increasing exposure to digital technology on your business.  


Today’s leaders are expected to develop themselves into rounded business advisors and deliver digital transformation at the same time. The digital revolution will not be televised to be re-run later, so you can pick over it and learn the lessons in hindsight. The digital revolution will be live.

What is the need for human leaders?

Commentators suggest we are drowning in new ‘always on’ technology that pervades modern life. At work, this is not simply a technology matter, but rather an issue that goes to the core of what it means to be a leader.

In his most recent book, Conquering Digital Overload, Peter Thomson - a leading authority on the future of work - examines the effects on core activities that were once the preserve of human leaders: providing support, focusing on results, seeking different perspectives and solving problems.  

Thomson and his co-authors explain how the digital revolution is stripping away the need for expert human leadership. When the internet can provide knowledge and empower groups of people to find their voice, they ask, what is the need for human leaders?

Could a robot become a leader?

The leaders who survive and thrive the digital revolution will work across organisational boundaries by putting their customers at the heart of their business processes. This means that brokers, claims handlers and underwriters can best embrace digital transformation by using technology and artificial intelligence to help prioritise customers’ needs and directing them towards appropriate services 24/7. Research by Oxford University suggests 47% of UK jobs will be lost to digitisation by 2050. Thankfully, you’ll still need ‘the human touch’ to coordinate - or ‘lead’ - the delivery of those services.

This means we need more and better-quality collaboration, and the ability to lead the whole system. Robots cannot do that, not yet anyway.

Whole system leadership

Whole system leadership means working across organisational boundaries and attending to strategy, operations and relationships.  To do this effectively you need to develop a collaborative mindset and skillset in your leadership team.

I’ve listened to the stories of many delegates on the leadership courses I facilitate through the ICAEW’s Academy of Professional Development:

• On strategy, progressive leaders are deploying live frameworks rather than preparing a five-year plan, obsolete from the moment the ink on it has dried.  

• In operations, smart leaders are investing in efficient shared services and digitisation.

These approaches require agility in operational leadership to ensure the strategy remains flexible and responsive to emerging customer needs.

Notably, the most effective leaders I speak to are explicitly working on their relationships.  In a recent survey by Renaix, 54% of finance professionals believe they need to invest in their relationship skills to keep up with technological developments.

This investment includes developing value-adding relationships with key customers, suppliers and other partners by becoming a rounded business advisor and being more collaborative. It also includes engaging staff in a vision of how digital technology can improve their working lives and the quality of the services they provide and investing in skills to deliver those services excellently in a digitised world.

Now is the time to develop your leadership skills

To be ready to lead the digital transformation of your business, it is more important than ever to develop a collaborative mindset and keep your leadership skills current and relevant. The Academy runs a suite of leadership courses such as leading change, developing influence and board readiness that are crucial for financial services professionals to cope with the effects of digital transformation. 

We can’t afford to wait for others to show us the way.  And so - if not you, then who will navigate the complexity of leading a digitally augmented workforce?