Let’s imagine, for a second, that you are the head of your company’s retail department. You’re responsible for setting up new stores, merchandising, recruiting and training staff. That’s a big job, one with a lot of moving parts and competing priorities, but fortunately you have mentors within the organization who can help, industry conferences, and well-established benchmarks for success.

Now imagine that you take all of those support systems away. You’re running one of the most vital parts of the business and somehow you have to figure out how to build your stores, where everything should go, and how to service your customers, all while leading a team who’s looking to you for direction. That’s the role of the modern day digital leader.

Over the past decade, digital has grown from being a sub-task of the marketing department to a core business function. Along the way, the people on the front lines have been in the work, learning, growing, and adapting as the technology has become a core way that customers interact with brands. As new opportunities popped up, the immediate need was to create resources and skills development for the designers, copywriters, developers, and creators. There has been one significant group left out of this shift, and that’s the people who are charged with leading these departments.

Ten years is not a lot of time for a business function to develop. Accounting, finance, HR, and retail have each had many decades to develop standards, train people, and develop leaders who came up through their respective departments. When it comes to digital, however, even if our leaders did work their way up in design, or social, or SEO, it’s very likely that the skills that got them there aren’t the ones that their staff need to be successful today.

We’ve had the fortunate perspective of having worked with many of these leaders (there are some fantastic ones out there) and we’ve found that their ability to lead has very little to do with their ability to read code or write copy. What great digital teams get from their leaders is no different than any other department: Clear direction, expectations, feedback, and development.

So how can non-digital leaders develop themselves to lead digital teams? We’ve identified 5 key behaviours that anyone can apply to their own work that will allow them to give their people exactly what they need:

1. Real Business Objectives

Digital teams have a tendency to work in a bubble. They’re often given specific goals and objectives that are relevant to the work that they’re in, but are difficult to relate back to the organization as a whole. What your team needs from you is not detailed outcomes like SEO rankings and social media engagement. What they need is a clear understanding of the direction that business is heading, and your trust that they can figure out how to get there.

Here are a few examples:

Instead of “increase social media engagement” try “introduce our brand to new audience(s)”.
Instead of “drive more traffic” try “educate our audience about what makes us different”.
Instead of “make our website mobile responsive” try “create a digital experience that is as easy and comfortable as our offline experiences”.

If you’ve put together the right team, they’ll jump at the chance to use their digital skills to solve bigger problems for the business. Once the real business objectives are set, then you can sit side-by-side with them to collaborate on exactly what the best tactics are going to be to achieve those objectives, and how you’ll measure them together.

2. Digital Literacy

Speaking the language is not the same as being a subject matter expert, but it does equip you to communicate with a common understanding. We published an article last year called The $100 Billion Conversation That Every Senior Leader Needs to Have. In it, we introduced the idea of Digital Literacy and gave specific steps that anyone can take to become literate. I’ll save you a bit of time and cut to the good stuff:

Learn the language. There are great resources out there that define, in simple terms, the key terms and concepts that your teams are probably using right now to communicate with each other. Here’s a place to start in four of the most important disciplines:

Ask your teams/agencies. No doubt you lead a bunch of very smart people. Use them as a resource. Ask them what they’re excited about, what new skills or techniques they’re seeing and what they would like you to know about them.

Take a course. While most courses are built for creators and coordinators, leaders can equip themselves by taking some of the more high level courses that describe the techniques without spending too much time in the details. My personal favourite is one that I’ve taught on nights and weekends for several years, it’s called the Digital Marketing Certificate Course and it’s offered by Brainstation in Vancouver and Toronto.

Be curious. Add in digital authors to your regular reading habits. If you like email newsletters, try Digiday, WeRSM, and our very own weekly: The Brief.

If you’re a podcast listener, go with Masters of Scale or Duct Tape Marketing.

Books: try Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan HollidayHooked by Nir Eyal, and Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug.

Get executive training. Hire someone like Junction to come in and work with your leadership team to uncover exactly what you need to know, then build training and resources to equip you with exactly that knowledge.

3. Trust and Accountability

While trust and accountability may seem like they’re opposing forces, they’re actually two sides of the same coin. Great digital leaders trust that their teams have the ability to hit the objectives that they set together, and like any great coach, they hold them accountable to those high standards. Your role is not to review their code or their copy, it is to ask: How are we making progress? What do you need in order to be successful? And what is standing in your way that I can help to clear up?

The simplest (and most effective) method that we’ve seen to implement trust and accountability in digital teams is good old fashioned one-on-ones, with one specific wrinkle: Each one-on-one starts with a review of the real business objectives that you set, and then the metrics that you developed together. The purpose for the review is not to score their performance, but to open a conversation about what’s working, what’s not, and what the team needs in order to succeed.

4. Tools and Resources

Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’ve yet to meet a digital leader who believes that they have all of the resources that they need to do everything that they want. In a world where there are nearly unlimited opportunities for tactics, we will always be limited by budgets. Your team doesn’t need to have every one of the latest pieces of software, but they do need to know what they have at their disposal, and they need to be heard when they are telling you that there’s a tool that they need to hit their objectives. This is one area where the people in the work have the clearest view of what is possible, and which resources could be most beneficial to their work. The mistake that many leaders make is that they look at their limited budgets and dole out resources as thinly as possible, trying to manage spending while giving everyone the minimum of what they need.

What if that conversation was a collaborative process? What if the people who know most about the tactics were responsible for identifying the resources that they need, and then the person managing the budget (you) worked together with them to identify which options will have the greatest impact? The result for the teams that we’ve seen is that, even if the outcome is the same, the team feels invested in the tools that they’re given and take an active role in making the most of what they have.

Also (and I will always advocate for this): Digital tools and resources are some of the highest yielding investments that a business can make. You have a responsibility to go back to the overall budget and really look to see if you’re making the most of the digital opportunity in front of you.

5. Clear, Consistent Process

We hear from digital teams all of the time that one of their greatest challenges is working with the other teams in their organization. HR throws a job posting at the web and social teams, the product team drops a new featured collection on them with a week’s notice, and the event team has a post that “has to go up on IG today”.

When we look at digital as a core business function, then it becomes obvious that we need to have an effective process for getting work done, just like any other department.

Fortunately, briefs are nothing new. They are simple, easy to read documents that lay out what is needed, why it needs to exist, how it should look/feel/communicate, and any deadlines associated with.

I can promise you that if your one major initiative as a digital leader this quarter is to implement a well-oiled briefing process, your team will love you for it.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Create a process. How much lead time is required? Who receives the briefs? Who is accountable for them? How can the digital team give feedback or get more information if it’s needed? Who gets to request revisions on the finished work?
  2. Create a template. That could be a Google form, it could live within software like Basecamp, Slack, Asana, or it could be as simple as a templated email. In it, you create simple requirements that anyone can fill out to inform and request work from digital.
  3. Get buy-in on your process across the senior leadership team. Stress to them the importance of a clear, effective work flow, and the need to keep your team in the loop.
  4. Become the process police. You may not want to be the bad guy, but your team certainly doesn’t want that role. Your leadership position means that you have the ability to reach across departments and make sure that everyone is respecting your team’s process.

As much as clear, effective briefing is a benefit to your team’s work flow, it’s an even stronger signal to your team that what they do is important to the organization. It shows that you are standing for them, respecting their work, and putting them on an even playing field with the other core business functions.