Developing Digital Leadership Triathletes

Such leaders fulfill the three-part role of digital strategist, innovator, and driver.

Emerging technologies continue to disrupt and transform industries, fueled further by the pandemic in the last two years. To stay competitive, organizations have been doubling down on their digital transformation efforts and investments.

Yet as technology advances, digital skills across leaders and the workforce are not keeping pace—creating a critically widening skills gap. According to a global survey conducted by MIT, only 9 percent of global executives surveyed strongly believe their organization has leaders with the skills needed to thrive in a digital economy (“The New Leadership Playbook for the Digital Age: Reimagining What It Takes to Lead,” MIT Sloan Management Review).

While many are working to close these gaps by hiring technology-focused roles, such as Chief Digital Officers, to drive transformation, this is only one part of the solution. For digital transformation to fully succeed, every leader in an organization must become a digital leader—through systematic learning and development.

So what does being a “digital leader” entail? Many organizations we work with struggle to align on a common definition, which makes the underlying skills challenging to measure and develop.


At Heidrick and Struggles, we use the metaphor of the “triathlete” as a model for digital leadership, with a unique three-part role of digital strategist, innovator, and driver.

  • Digital Strategist: Looks outside the organization, understands disruptive trends and emerging technology, and thinks about how to apply those to their own area of the business.
  • Digital Driver: Drives transformation and change initiatives across the business, and scales new experiments and innovations to realize their potential for the larger organization.
  • Digital Innovator: Challenges the status quo, experiments, and innovates to find ways to transform the business.

Like triathletes, digital leaders must develop a solid foundation in all three elements to enable transformation and stay future-ready. The triathlete leader also must have agility at the core—the ability to see ahead, learn, and adapt to changes in the market, which serves as an accelerant to the other roles.


Once you align on a common definition of digital leadership skills, how do you start developing them?

While our development work is tailored to each organization, here are a few common elements:

1. Start at the top. Start efforts with the Csuite— or as close to the top as possible. Senior leaders serve as champions and role models for digital mindsets and skill sets, so their engagement and sponsorship is critical for cascading development through the organization.

2. Build a foundation of disruptive tech. Guide leaders in exploring digital initiatives from competitors, emerging players, and adjacent industries, as well as from their colleagues across the business, strategizing how they might experiment with and apply these in their own work.

3. Emphasize business outcomes. A limiting belief we often see is that digital innovation is something “extra” on top of daily priorities—which can hold leaders back. It’s critical to emphasize, therefore, that digital innovation ultimately leads to better business outcomes and should be integrated into the flow of work. Highlighting digital success stories from colleagues can make the opportunities more tangible and relatable.

4. Cultivate a mindset of agility. Becoming a digital leader is not just about understanding the latest technologies but being adaptive, pushing through personal discomfort, and being willing to explore and experiment with whatever comes next


As technology change continues to accelerate, closing the digital skills gap is a non-negotiable for organizations. To do this, they must go beyond hiring and systematically develop their leaders to be triathletes—to enable them to compete and stay relevant in the digital future.

Yulia Barnakova
Yulia Barnakova is passionate about helping people develop the skills and learning mindset to thrive in the digital age. She is always experimenting with emerging technologies and has been recognized by Microsoft as a “Most Valuable Professional” for her creative presentation technology tutorials, which have more than 8 million views on YouTube. Her recent TEDx Talk, Think You’re Not Tech Savvy? Here’s Why You Are, shows how everyone can (and must) develop the mindset and skill set embrace technology. Barnakova is an emerging tech strategist for Accenture, a global technology consulting firm. In her role, she works with Fortune 500 leaders to envision how emerging technologies will transform their business and how to stay ahead.