Leadership skills for digital practitioners

Guest Blog from ex-government digital expert Rebecca Kemp on the leadership skillsets that are required in the public sector for digital practitioners

Posted 29 August 2017 by Lucy Brown

We all know that digital transformation requires digital skills at all levels of organisations, and that these skills can be hard to find. There is lots of excellent debate about the need for more digital understanding in people who lead organisations. And the need for expert digital practitioners, like designers and developers, is well understood.

But to really drive change in an organisation, we need to bridge the gap between the senior leaders and the practitioners. Senior leaders can’t “sell” digital to the organisation and manage stakeholders alone. All digital practitioners need to play a part.

Leadership behaviours aren’t usually taught to digital practitioners. But they can be learned. These 5 principles will guide digital practitioners to start to lead within their organisations.


1.Tell a good story

You don’t need to be a visionary to get your organisation to support your project. But you do need to be able to explain what you want to do clearly, and show why it helps the organisation achieve its goals. It’s best to do this in language that appeals to the person that you’re talking to at the time. For example, stress the financial benefits when you’re speaking to a senior manager who prioritises efficiency savings above everything else. This might even mean that you don’t talk about user needs, even though they are the most important thing to you.

Try preparing a simple statement to explain what you’re doing and why it benefits the organisation. You can use it again and again.

A structure to try is: “The organisation aims to do [a], our work will contribute [b]. It will cost [x] and bring in benefits to the value of [y]”. For example, “Acme Software aims to bring in 200 new customers this year. Redesigning the website so it meets user needs should bring in 100 new customers. The website redesign project will cost £75,000 and the revenue from 100 new customers will be £300,000.”

2. Have evidence for putting users first

Digital practitioners rightly feel passionately about the importance of user needs. But the people you have to convince of the value of your project might not care about users, and have no organisational pressures encouraging them to care. It can be tempting to get into a theoretical discussion (read: argument) with your stakeholders about the importance of user needs. But that isn’t going to move your project forward.

Instead, present evidence about what users need from research and analytics and explain what you want to do to meet those needs (avoiding the words “user needs” if you have to). This makes the discussion more objective. It’s hard for someone to argue against evidence.

3. Get people involved, it gets them invested

Don’t keep your work to yourselves. Show prototypes quickly, even if they’re just on paper. Invite people to show and tells. It might take a while but eventually people will show interest.

A modest tone works best here. Position your invitation as “we’ve built something and we’d love your input to make it better” rather than “here is the future of your organisation from your colleagues in the digital team’.

4. Be nice

Which leads me onto the importance of being nice. That’s nice as in “decent colleague”, not as in “pushover”.

Your project is really important to you, but your colleagues are probably indifferent. That’s ok. You can work with indifference. But you can’t work with hostility. If people don’t like you, they’ll find ways to stop your project.

Don’t talk negatively about what came before you, or existing systems/services. This how people often explain why changes need to be made. The argument is basically “what exists is rubbish, my solution will save us all”. But what exists was probably done for good reasons and people generally try their best. Better to assume that and talk about the benefits of your project positively, as I explained in point 1.

5. Look after yourself

Leadership work can be draining. You have to show enthusiasm and dedication on days when all you want to do is hide under your duvet. Or tell the colleagues who are blocking you what you really think of them. Or bash your head against a brick wall because that feels like a more fruitful activity than talking to the finance team yet again.

You need to find ways to look after yourself when work gets hard, and to replenish your energy. Look outside your organisation and establish a network of people you like who do similar work. You’ll be able to share triumphs and failures and learn from each other. You can be more candid that you might be with colleagues within your organisation, and the chances are you face similar challenges.

Rebecca Kemp is a freelance digital director. She leads digital transformation programmes and consults on strategy, service design and agile. She trains leaders to understand digital, and trains digital practitioners to lead within their organisations. Find out more about Rebecca at rebeccaindustries.com.