Five ways CEOs can create digitally savvy leadership teams

Ann Longley, digital director at the Prince’s Trust, reflects on key pieces of digital learning from ACEVO’s recent annual conference

Digital content, channels and technology are transforming most aspects of our lives. From book buying to banking, digital is now intrinsic to even the most routine daily tasks. Yet according to Nesta’s Geoff Mulgan the non-profit sector is playing no part in the digital revolution.

Research from the latest Charity Skills Report indicates more digital skills are needed in the sector. It found demand for digital skills within civil society continues to grow,  and over 50% of digital leaders say they need more support developing their digital services and products. Imagine what good could be done, if civil society was fully engaged in the digital agenda?

ACEVO’s 2018 conference put a strong focus on digital leadership. I facilitated a panel of leading lights in the sector. They, each in their own way, have taken great strides marching their organisations towards digital maturity. Acting as a beacon for other charity leaders, the panel shared their stories to room packed full of their peers.

Here are their top tips for developing digitally savvy leadership teams:

1. Take action: All the panellists had a light bulb moment’ when they realised staying still was not an option. Recognising the chance to increase impact or gain organisational efficiency are great drivers for change. Taking action is essential to reap these rewards and help your organisation leap ahead.

Best practice at work:

Fozia Irfan, CEO of Beds and Luton Community Foundation, recognised that software tools were aiding grant administration in other community foundations. With no one else to turn to in her small organisation, she oversaw the end-to-end transformation process from procurement to technology implementation and adoption herself. The resulting ‘paperless panels’ saved significant staff time and costs, quickly proving the value of the software investment to her board.

2. Drive change based on insights: Digitally savvy leaders observe what is happening outside their organisations including the use of digital content and channels by key stakeholder groups and evolve their marketing and communications activity accordingly. They take their teams on a journey.

Best practice at work:

Caroline Lee Davey, CEO of Bliss, helped her team switch to video streaming rather than including outmoded DVDs in their packs for parents. This move helped them modernise their approach whilst saving costs. They also made key improvements to their website by introducing a highly visible ‘donate’ button which helped generate revenue.  Bliss won this years’ Embracing Digital Award at the Charity Governance Awards. Small improvements can make a big difference if your approach has fallen behind. Encouraging your staff to pay attention to media trends is vital for your organisation to mature digitally.

3. Invest to improve impact: Digital tech can provide smart personalised services, but investment is needed to secure the benefits. Make the case for investment based on expected outcomes.

Best practice at work:

Steve Ford, CEO, Parkinson’s UK, who won the Social CEO, Digital Leadership award earlier this year was so committed to digital, he brought in a highly skilled digital leader to get involved in strategic conversations at the highest levels and help introduce and embed new ways of working throughout the organisation. This process has revolutionised Parkinson’s UK’s approach. In addition to boosting their fundraising efforts, they are committed to providing tailored services and have created a number of pioneering apps that support people with Parkinson’s. Watch their inspiring story here. Investment is required if you want to take great strides. Making the case to your board will help them understand the need for change.

4. Lead by example: Social media can help build the brand of your organisation internally and externally, but it takes time to master. By taking the time to learn news skills and experiment with new channels, you can help your people take advantage of the latest opportunities to boost productivity and communication.

Best practice at work:

Although initially resistant, Fozia is now advocate of the power of social media as it helps her raise the foundation’s profile without having to leave her desk. She has also found that collaborative tools like #Slack help everyone in her organisation stay connected throughout the day, whether they are in the office or not. By using these modern tools, she is empowering everyone in her organisation whilst helping attract and retain a talented workforce.

5. Hire specialists: Whilst it is important for everyone to upskill digitally at all levels of the organisation, it is wise to have dedicated in-house pros. Introducing new specialist skills sets can help charities advance and scale their digital activity quickly. New ways of working will need to be introduced by people who know what it takes to build exceptional digital products, services and experiences.

Best practice at work:

Caroline Lee-Davey hired digital experts but ensures everyone has access to their skills. By putting digital at the heart of their organisational strategy, and bringing some much-needed skills in house, all functions can benefit.

Steve Ford also ensures digital skills are embedded. Parkinson’s UK has also set up an Innovation Lab to enable the organisation to develop ground-breaking digital services for people with Parkinson’s. The degree of transformation required to develop new digital products in house cannot be under-estimated, so ensuring the right skills and processes in place is compulsory.

In closing, these ACEVO civil society CEO panellists proved the best way for charities to mature digitally is to lead by example. Following the above leadership tips will help the sector to advance. Whilst bottom up change is important; the organisation will only transform if the importance of digital is grasped at the top. I’ve no doubt, this kind of leadership approach needs to spread. If more civil society leaders take responsibility for driving digital maturity, the sector will be better equipped to use digital content, tools and tech to solve society’s most pressing problems. Input from the sector is crucial to ensure digital technology develops to benefit everyone. The time is right for civil society to put it at the top of their agenda.

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