Reflections on leadership in the digital era

Beth Fox
6 min readSep 12, 2021

Recently, as part of a job application process, I had to answer the question, “What does leadership and delivery in the internet era mean to me?” While the application didn’t work out, it did provide me with an excellent opportunity to reflect on leadership… both in terms of what I value and how I lead… and also the kind of leadership I want and need from others. In the spirit of radiating intent, I am sharing my vision for a few reasons:

  1. I want to be open about what matters to me so I can be accountable to my own intentions.
  2. Despite feeling disappointment that I’ve not advanced in a formal leadership role, leading from where I am is at the heart of who I am, and so there is value in this reflection and in sharing it.
  3. We need examples and discussions about what leadership can look like at different trajectories and in different career paths… Especially in a public service context. I hope this post can be part of that conversation.
  4. Sharing what we learn in all efforts… even those that don’t turn out as we’d hoped or expected is as important as sharing when we “win” or things go our way.

I put time and energy into this reflection and am proud of my work, and my leadership style. Thanks to some encouragement from a friend, I also went outside my comfort zone and spent time creating a digital sketchnote of my vision. Without further ado, here are my thoughts along with the sketchnote.

A sketchnote showing how my leadership supports teams. How those supported teams can be integrated together to achieve the greater goals of government and service delivery in the internet era.

What does Internet-era leadership and delivery mean to me?

When I reflect on the definition of digital as applying the culture, practices, processes, and technologies of the Internet-era I always come back to people. How our people approach challenges and relate to each other creates our culture. Our people make decisions within governance and processes. Our people make up the teams we ask to solve hard problems. Our people build, configure, and make choices about technology every day. When I think about what makes the digital-era transformation of government possible, it’s our people. If we truly intend to transform government we need to work at multiple levels at the same time. Leaders across our organization need to support collaborative, productive, partnerships. When it comes to leadership I believe that relationships are the strategy.

The unit of delivery is the team and culture is their operating system.

If teams are the unit of delivery, then I believe we must start by focusing on them. As a leader in the digital strategy team, that means providing leadership within my own team, and also for other leaders and teams that seek our support & guidance as well. We need to model and reinforce the positive relationships, mindsets, and behaviours that are the foundations which make teams successful. Caring, safe, inclusive, empathetic, agile, open, and sustainable are the building blocks for great team culture. Teams that are empowered and supported this way are able to learn, adapt, and create the tools, frameworks, and processes that are fit for purpose in their context. They build the necessary skills and capability from within, rather than waiting for everything to be decided for them. This underpinning of team culture makes it possible to deliver just about anything at pace and at scale.

A digital service inside government requires an integrated team of teams.

One team alone cannot deliver excellent digital services, mission critical IT, or operational excellence. We need to be connected to each other with a shared purpose. When our individual teams are collaborating in productive partnerships, a digital service becomes greater than the sum of its parts. We support each other’s efforts to tackle technical debt, we collaborate on common infrastructure and platforms, we build new skills and capabilities by solving hard problems together. We learn from and prioritize our users, reusing, sharing, and scaling what works in the open. We all level up and that creates the lift that’s necessary to continuously deliver and improve across the board. The strategy team I envision invests in creating the vision, frameworks, and lines-of-sight that make it possible for teams to connect the dots between themselves.

How we show up to the rest of government.

When we focus on supporting each other across teams, we become connected and integrated, and that makes us better partners for the rest of government. It becomes easier for programs to find a clear path between their outcomes and the digital, data and technology they need. If relationships are my leadership strategy at a micro level, then at the scale of government the strategy is trusted partnerships. We show up to meet people where they are and help them deliver key outcomes. Our investment in secure foundations, scalable platforms, and services that work for people begins to pay dividends. Technology is no longer seen as “digitizing” work, rather digital becomes a beacon for the continuous improvement of programs and services. This is how we transform government in the digital era!

Transformation starts with me as a leader.

It can be overwhelming to think about how to transform an entire public service. I have always operated on the premise that leadership can happen anywhere, and so it starts with me. Leadership flows between me and my team, from individual teams across an integrated digital service, to the rest of government. How I lead and support others can be a catalyst for change. I nurture relationships based on trust and radical candor. I am willing to be vulnerable, admit my mistakes, and make the necessary repairs. I believe in the power of kindness and being a multiplier by supporting others to lead and unlock their potential. I encourage a growth mindset and model curiosity and reflection. I recognize my privilege and share my power (influence and opportunities) to strive for true equity and inclusion. This is my theory of how leadership and investing in people, one relationship at a time, changes everything.

Now what?

I’ve shared my original submission because I wanted to capture the snapshot of that moment of reflection. That said, there are always constraints with any application process and I still think there is a lot to unpack here. What do those behaviours actually look like in practice? How do we avoid unintentionally diminishing potential when we’re trying to help? What does the confidence to start, to try, mean for developing people and teams? I hope to continue to reflect on these and perhaps create a series of posts as a follow up.

So how about you?

Have you taken time to think about your leadership style or team operating system? How do you recognize the behaviors that contribute to (or undermine) your vision? Have you thought about what you want or need from leaders around you? Does your definition of leadership in a digital era look different? Are you looking for or striving to be a leader like me? I’d love to hear from you and keep this conversation going!

Gratitude

A sincere note of thanks those who were kind enough to help me as I was formulating, clarifying, and drafting my response as part of my application. Alycia Putnam, thanks for pushing me to illustrate with more confidence (and something other than a sharpie) and then encouraging me to share my vision no matter the outcome.

I always value your provocative questions and continued encouragement of openness and vulnerability. I’m extremely grateful for supportive humans in my life who remind that every opportunity to learn what matters most is never a waste of time.

Epilogue

The reflection continues in my follow up post on comfort in leadership .

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Beth Fox

Multipotentialite. I ❤ empathy & kindness. Fond of asking how might we? Works @ Nova Scotia Gov to make the world better. Loosely held opinions = mine (she/her)