8 Traits Your Digital Leader Must Have

I recently got a call from a friend who is the CEO of a media company.  He was looking for a VP of Digital and asked if I knew anyone who might be a good fit.  I asked what his goals were.  He said to make his digital business x% larger.  I suggested that he get a Chief Digital Officer.  The difference in my mind was that a VP of Digital makes your digital business better, a CDO makes you entire organization better with digital.  The CDO understands your core business, has a vision of the future state and understands how to close all the technology, human capital and content gaps.

That call had my mind racing as I thought through the predicament the newspaper industry is currently in.  Here’s a scary fact, the person in a newspaper’s digital leadership role in 2012 will make or break the company.  The print picture is getting increasingly dire and most newspapers have an 18-36 month window to turn it around.  That means it’s not a time of many small experiments.  It’s a time of decisive moves that will make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time.  It’s not a time for incremental improvements, it’s a time for curve jumping/paradigm changing stuff.

Digital Leadership

Over the past 12 years I’ve worked in media companies managing technology, in technology companies supporting media organizations and as a consultant aligning media  and technology companies.  I’ve seen several dozen leaders both great and terrible so I put this list together of some traits I believe a digital leader should have to lead the pivot from being a print-centric organization to a digital media company.

8 Traits Your Next Digital Leader Must Have

They must have run a p/l that was not based solely on digital advertising – There are a lot of “digital” people out there looking for work, either from pureplays or media companies.  Most grew up believing that aggregating as much traffic as you can and selling ads against it was a viable model.  That model never really worked once you got below say the top 500 web sites or had more than 5 employees.  Look for someone who has run a paid digital subscription model.  That is your future.  There is an art and a science to acquiring, retaining and winning back digital subscribers.  It’s even better if you can find someone one who ran a business based on multiple revenue streams like subs, lead generation, advertising, events and business services.  Running a p/l is critical.  There is a big difference between running a digital operation when it was someone else’s problem to figure out the business model or define the product mix.

They should understand content but not be a “content” person – I know it sounds counter intuitive but a “content” person will usually be passionate about content to a fault.  You have an editorial team for that.  The data will tell you what good content is.  Your audience will vote with their usage.  Your digital person must look at content as product and figure out the best ways to monetize that product.

They must be a great teacher – The future of your company is on having a deep bench.  The players that you need to build your digital future don’t really exist today.  In the wild you have technology people, either developers or operations people.  You have technology sales people, ux people, etc.  These people are expensive and likely won’t understand the intricacies of local media business.   Your best bet is to build your own team from within.  You don’t need developers, they are everywhere.  You need product visionaries, project managers and strategists who understand your audience.  Unless you are a venture backed start up you likely can’t afford them, they are expensive.  Invest in retraining your top people.  They will love you for it.

They have worked in a large company and a small company – I ran a business unit with an 8 figure expense budget and one with a 4 figure budget.  You have to be far more creative with the 4 figure budget.  People coming from large companies learn to throw money at problems.  If you’ve worked with a small or no budget you can work with a large one.  It doesn’t always work the other way.  No matter what your budget is someone who has worked with a small budget can get you maximum return on your digital dollar.

They have to be a great communicator – The future is going to be very confusing to the non-technical.  Your digital leader will have to be able to communicate the vision to your management team, your board of directors, your staff and advertisers.  Don’t underestimate the value communicating complex thoughts and concepts.

They have to understand the core print business model – The key to surviving is making the print to digital pivot and leveraging the treasure trove of existing print assets.  Someone who is a digital native might not understand all the value that sits in the print business.

They have to know technology really well but not necessarily be technologist – They should know how the sausage is made and understand all the moving parts.  The vendor choices are vast and the different ways of licensing and acquiring technology is changing every day.  They also need to know how to evaluate their internal teams recommendations.  Sometimes those recommendations are not in the best interest of the organization.  I’ve seen a lot of recommendations that were made around job protection of internal teams.

They must have demonstrated a “leader” role in an uncertain landscape – The newspaper industry is full of followers.  It’s really difficult to take point walking into a pitch dark room.   “Leading” is a born trait.  It takes conviction of belief, connecting dots from outside the industry and past outcomes and the ability to analyze and adjust to all the datapoints along the journey.  Ok, there’s only one Steve Jobs but those are the key traits of who you need leading you into the future.  Oh, you should be able to look at your leader’s history and see a recurring pattern of being right the majority of times in similar situations.

You likely won’t find someone with all those traits but having run a p/l, understanding your core business, demonstrating a proven history in emerging technology leadership, being a great teacher and communicator are key.  Make the decision quickly as time is not on your side.



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