To help workers who are struggling with a disruptive pace of change, leaders need to rapidly adapt to an ever-changing digital world.
“The influx of change on an individual and global level is leaving people wary, uncertain and exhausted,” says Manisha Dhawan, author of the book The Digital Agile Leader: How to Attract, Develop and Retain Top Talent in an Ever-Changing Digital World (2023,Indie Books International).
Dhawan wants people to know they have the potential to develop new skills and harness change for good. Her career spans over two decades of leading highly successful digital and strategic change initiatives across start-ups through Fortune 10 companies. She has turned around stagnant projects and built high performing, engaged teams to generate over $100 million dollars in revenue from one initiative alone.
“Whatever change you are facing as a leader, it is important to be aware of how you are showing up,” says Dhawan. “You can choose the status quo, or you can find ways to be curious and lean into change. Neither is necessarily good or bad, but we often have a choice.”
In her book, Dhawan shares her Agility Matrix to build self-awareness to help deal with change. She says to be effective, leaders need to foster a learning environment, develop people skills, refine how work gets done and pay attention to who is getting left behind.
Her book offers eight principles for digital age leaders:
Shape the culture. Rather than letting the culture shape itself, take a proactive role in setting the tone and structure. How does work get done? Is it safe to fail, or are mistakes and conversations swept aside?
Learn from inside stories. It is important to take a pulse and listen to employees, then to turn insights into action. You won’t be able to accommodate everyone, but you can learn what matters from their perspective.
Think like a scientist. As a chemistry undergrad, Dhawan learned how to approach problems as a scientist. “It can be helpful to deconstruct problems and find the root cause,” she says. “What questions are we asking? What do we need to question?”
Connect to purpose. Start with yourself. How do you contribute and make an impact at work? How can your employees find meaning in what they do?
Co-create career paths. Learn what motivates your employees. Get creative to provide different opportunities.
Amplify your emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence, along with other interpersonal skills, is important to build relationships and influence internally and externally.
Believe in belonging. If you can find ways to repair chasms and foster belonging, employees can feel more connected to the organization. Create space where people can share, then listen carefully for clues.
Play the long game. While some leaders get caught up in achieving short-term gains, effective leadership is a long-term play. Your reputation and credibility follow you.
Dhawan shares a balanced perspective for both employers and employees. “Employees should take the initiative to learn and adapt to the culture or decide it’s not for them. We need to choose which battles to fight, which ones to walk away from, and ultimately own our careers.”
She was inspired to write her book after reflecting on her experiences, talking to others and realizing she was not alone in hitting obstacles in her career.
“Bullying, exclusion, political landmines – I’ve seen and experienced it all,” says Dhawan. “These toxic behaviors disrupt the fabric of organizations and are beyond counterproductive – they are truly damaging.”
She hopes her book will inspire more conscious leadership and motivate people to create intentional change in their lives.
“When I was coaching an executive in the technology industry, he mentioned he was under immense pressure and inherited a team that lacked certain skills,” said Dhawan. “Some of his efforts to drive results backfired and diminished morale. As I work with different leaders and teams, I realize we are all struggling in different ways, so it is important to have empathy and also hold each other accountable.”
Dhawan grew up in San Diego, where she watched her father, as an immigrant from India, build his company, Applied Membranes Inc, from the ground up in their garage. She had the opportunity to work in the family business and learn. Dhawan credits her parents’ resilience and humility for her perseverance, work ethic and compassion.