What a difference a client can make. This is the tale of two clients I worked with at the same time a few years back (names have been changed to protect the innocent).

Jane was not an expert in the web, while John had years of experience behind him. One would naturally conclude that John would make the best digital lead, but that was not the case.

Technical skills aren’t everything

Do not misunderstand me, digital skills are useful if you lead a digital team. However, they are not the only requirement and many other factors influence whether someone makes a good digital lead.

In fact, to be a great digital lead requires particular personality traits and soft skills, more than it does technical knowledge.

There was no doubt that John knew his stuff. He started as a web designer and has maintained and grown his knowledge by attending all the right conferences and reading the right blogs. However, despite that he lacked the leadership skills that Jane had in abundance.

For example, John saw himself as an implementer, not somebody who took control.

Choose to take control

John had worked for his organisation since being a junior web designer. He had worked his way up through the company until he ran the web team. However, he still had the mentality of a junior designer. He still expected to be told what to do. To implement the ideas of others.

Yes, he would complain that he had no control, but when he was given authority he wouldn’t utilise it. As part of the work we did with John, we produced a digital strategy and that strategy stated that the digital lead (John) should have final authority over the digital assets.

The entire board signed off on this strategy, agreeing that John should take the reins.

Instead of leaping on this new opportunity, John immediately allowed others to derail his vision for the site. He moaned about this, but wouldn’t fight to maintain the authority he had been given.

Jane on the other hand was a different person. She didn’t wait to be handed authority. She just got on with what needed to be done. She took a page out of Grace Hopper’s book, who famously said:

It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.

Jane understood that nobody was going to give her control and that nobody else was willing to take responsibility, so she stepped up. She didn’t wait to be picked, she picked herself.

This meant making some tough choices that others avoided.

Be willing to make decisions

Making decisions carry risk. Risk of being wrong, risk of upsetting others, risk of failure.

Those of us who work for ourselves or who are apart of smaller companies, are used to those risks. However, in larger organisations many have become risk averse. With so many peers, it is easier to let somebody else take the risk, or collectively move towards a consensus where no one individual takes responsibility.

This is why John chose not to take control. He felt more comfortable allowing others to make decisions, even if he then moans about it. Better to let others take the risk and criticise them, than be the person receiving the criticism. Not that this is a conscious decision, instead he convinces himself that he has to get buy in or approval from others before he can move.

Jane (on the other hand) recognised that digital was moving too fast to always reach a consensus or wait for others to make the decision. She understood that for better or worse decisions had to be made quickly and that failing to make a decision was as bad as making the wrong one.

Not that this means she ignored the opinions and feelings of others.

Willingly listen and consult

Jane knew her limitations. She knew she was not a digital expert and so turned to others to fill in those gaps in her knowledge. She regularly consulted with experts both within the organisation and outside before reaching a decision.

Some of these experts would be web professionals in her own team, while others were content experts from across the organisation who had a stake in various parts of the site.

She valued the opinions of others, but ultimately took the decision she felt was right based on the feedback she received.

John consulted too, but resented it. He felt that he was the digital expert and so should be making the final call. He consulted with stakeholders because he felt he had to. He didn’t recognise their expertise in their subject matter. Of course, stakeholders could sense this from John and so were often unwilling to work with him.

John also had the same attitude with his own team. He was older and therefore in his eyes more experienced on the web than most of his staff. This meant he knew best and didn’t need to pay too much heed to their feedback. As a result his staff often felt under valued and that their contributions didn’t really matter.

Jane’s team knew they were valued because she was very open about the limitations in her experience. She relied on her team to perform and people consistently stepped up to avoid letting her down. They wanted to support her, because she was constantly fighting for them.

Be unafraid to disrupt and challenge

Jane was no push over. If her team agreed that something needed to be done in a certain way, she would fight hard with senior management to make that happen.

She understood that digital didn’t fit comfortably into the current organisational structure and that senior management didn’t always understand the need to change. She therefore had a choice. She could compromise the effectiveness of digital to fit comfortably into the organisation, or be a disruptive force that tried to drag the organisation into the digital age. Unsurprisingly she was not afraid to do the latter.

Equally unsurprisingly John chose the former. He seemed to prefer to work in a safe job that he hated, than be a maverick and risk losing what he had. This always struck me as somewhat bizarre when his experience meant he could quite easily walk into another job, especially considering how much digital leads are in demand.

Which are you?

The question here is which are you? Are you Jane with her drive, enthusiasm and fearlessness, or John who has obviously been thoroughly institutionalised?

Of course nobody likes to think they are John, but if you find yourself constantly frustrated in bringing about change, if you have an unhappy team, then I encourage you to take a long hard look at your approach.