Podcast 🎧 & blog: Teams and people as the core of effective digital leadership

21.02.2024 | Federico Plantera

We find ourselves often saying that it is people, rather than technological tools, that make the digital transformation successful and effective. That holds true for what concerns listening to the needs of users, taking invaluable feedback, and returning to citizens with solutions that do actually fit their asks and necessities.

That holds true as well, though, when applied to managing teams, and leading them to goals set in plans and strategies. Public service delivery makes no exception in this sense – the essence of digital leadership lies as much in driving things forward, as in enabling teams to do that most organically.

Ingrid Toonekurg, recently appointed as a Member of the Management Board of e-Governance Academy, is no stranger to such practices. After years in sales management at large IT companies and a wealth of international experience, she joins eGA – and this podcast episode – to delve into the determinants of successful team management. In digital transformation too, indeed, listening to your team can be as valuable as listening to your end-users.

International experience and open mind, to lead diverse teams

In digital transformation, leadership transcends mere management; it embodies the art of inspiring change, navigating multicultural landscapes, and fostering team dynamics that drive innovation and success. It comes as no surprise, then, that Toonekurg’s journey so far has been marked by diverse experiences across the globe, from the corridors of Microsoft to the strategic frameworks of IBM. Her story begins in the realm of education, and winds through the ranks of Estonia’s Ministry of Finance, culminating today in a role that sits at the confluence of governance, technology, and leadership.

After leading teams at Microsoft across 25 countries, it’s clear that the essence of effective leadership lies in the ability to transcend cultural and geographical boundaries. Something that underscores the importance of adapting leadership styles, to resonate with diverse team dynamics, with an eye on fostering an environment of mutual respect and shared goals.

Being globally minded, so to say, is key. “Words like international, different cultures, people, teams. I feel all of this describes my path so far quite fittingly,” Toonekurg admits.

Listening to people’s needs – in and out of the office

If we are not born leaders – and most of us aren’t – we can, though, refine skills and knowledge that take us closer to managing people and teams effectively. One of those skills, key in Toonekurg’s view and experience, is listening.

Active listening, specifically, in many instances can determine the success of projects, initiatives – and ultimately, customer success. A point that doesn’t necessarily have to be trained, at least initially, in business schools.

Take surveying for a local newspaper, or bartending. The latter also has been part of Toonekurg’s work experience, “even though for a very short time. But it was a very cool job because people felt comfortable sharing things that, perhaps, they wouldn’t even tell their colleagues or friends. You collect a lot of stories, not all of them fun. But you do hear a lot of life experiences, and ways of people to recall and represent them.” That helps you develop empathy and care, while training yourself to be open to actually listening to people’s needs. Whether they are part of your team, or customers further down the service delivery line.

Navigating sectors and cultures with a people-centric approach

In this sense, Toonekurg’s seamless navigation across sectors – from education to the public sector, and from there to the IT industry – highlights a key leadership insight: the core of effective leadership remains constant, irrespective of the domain.  It’s about people, understanding their needs, and rallying them toward a common vision.

“Regardless of the sector, effective leadership hinges on the ability to connect with, understand, and mobilise people in the direction of shared goals. This reinforces the argument that leadership effectiveness in digital transformation is not confined to technological proficiency, but is deeply rooted in human-centric skills such as empathy, adaptability, and the ability to inspire and lead,” – said Toonekurg.

Such a people-centric approach reflects as well in the posture we take with others. “We must champion the idea of assuming the best intentions in people, and the significance of inclusivity in team settings. To the end of advocating for a leadership approach that values diversity, and ensures that even the quietest voices are heard and considered,” Toonekurg says.

We move in the direction of an approach to leadership that goes beyond conventional managerial tasks, focusing instead on the human element of team dynamics. This perspective champions the idea that understanding and addressing team members’ needs, concerns, and motivations are crucial for cultivating cohesive and motivated group behavior.

In this sense, Toonekurg clearly suggests a leadership model where decision-makers are also facilitators and supporters of their teams, advocating for a leadership style that values and nurtures individual team members’ contributions.

Digital leadership must bridge technology and human needs

Her insights into leading teams, especially in the context of digital transformation, spotlight additionally the intricate balance between technological advancement and human-centric service design. Her approach underscores the necessity of aligning digital initiatives with the actual needs and contexts of end-users, be they citizens in public services or customers in the private sector.

This perspective is especially pertinent in the realm of digital governance, where the ultimate goal is to enhance accessibility, efficiency, and satisfaction for all citizens. “A leadership philosophy advocating for a collaborative and inclusive approach to digital transformation is what takes us closer to people, making technological solutions more thoughtfully designed to meet diverse user needs. With the goal of steering digital initiatives, toward meaningful impact,” said Toonekurg.

Yet another human side of digital development

Some of you might remember our discussions on digital leadership from two years ago – where we featured change-makers such as Siim Sikkut, Yolanda Martinez, Barry Lowry. Here too, Toonekurg’s experience and words remind us of a key takeaway. That leading teams and digital transformation successfully, first passes through managing people well and then analysing technological solutions to adopt.

Toonekurg’s journey and insights bring to the forefront the indispensability of a people-centric approach in the realm of digital leadership. As we navigate the complexities of digital transformation, it becomes increasingly clear that technology alone does not dictate success. Instead, the human elements of empathy, listening, and understanding are what truly drive initiatives forward and make them resonate with both teams and end-users.

Experiences across various sectors and cultures reinforce the idea that leadership, at its core, is about connecting with people. By prioritising the needs and voices of individuals, and fostering environments where diverse perspectives are valued and heard, leaders can craft solutions that are not only technologically sound but also genuinely beneficial for all stakeholders involved.

Listen to all episodes of the Digital Government Podcast here!

New episodes will be launched on Wednesdays.