How to Become a Digital Leader in 2021

By Salvatore Ciolfi May 3, 2021
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How to Become a Digital Leader in 2021 – the latest installment in BrainStation’s 2021 Digital Leadership Event Series – took place on April 29 and featured leaders from Twitch, Amazon Web Services, The New York Times, and Peloton.

You can watch the recap here:


With the rapid rate of change in today’s digital world, leaders must understand disruptive technologies – both those that are currently molding the market as well as those hovering on the horizon – and how to leverage the latest tech innovations to stand out in a crowded competitive field.

But how do you strategize for the future when even the present is in flux? To find out, BrainStation’s panel gathered cross-functional business and technology leaders to break down the most important disciplines, technologies, and trends that any forward-thinking professional should be thinking about in 2021 and beyond.

A User-Centric Future

As more and more businesses are wisely trying to prioritize user experience, forward-thinking companies are looking for ways to turn up the volume on customer feedback.

As a direct-t0-consumer brand, Peloton is ahead of the pack in this area. As Peloton Director of Product Arjun Gopalratnam explains, Peloton members are uniquely vocal and honest with their opinions. And when it’s time to make decisions that affect its product or experience, Peloton is sure to bring its members along for the ride.

“When you have a brand that has such obsessive loyalty as ours does, people really feel like you are part of their family and they won’t hesitate to tell you their feedback, positive or negative. We use every bit of that to improve the product,” Gopalratnam said.

“We use that kind of information to figure out which direction we’re going to go.”

User feedback is of course crucial when the company is testing, too. 

“We often launch software to a small subset of the population. We determine if it’s hitting our KPI, whatever we were trying to move. And if it isn’t, we’re not shy about pulling it back, maybe canceling that and regenerating it internally and then pushing it forward again.”

An important point about being user-centric in 2021 and beyond? Doing so requires considering the needs of all users in all their global diversity, pointed out Sharmeen Browarek Chapp, Twitch’s Vice President of Community.

“Digital leadership means being conscious of the responsibility that we carry in a world where our online products reach people across the world, across country borders,” Chapp said. “We have to take a global perspective of how we design our products for our customers and have that be at the heart of everything that we do.”

The Era of Data Continues

In recent years, big data has dominated discussions around business and tech, with companies scrambling to invest in data science and analytics – as well as subset disciplines like machine learning and A.I. – to unlock the power and potential of the reams of data now being collected.

But when it comes to converting all that information into insights, most businesses are only scratching the surface of what is possible. In BrainStation’s 2020 Digital Skills Survey, for instance, 83 percent of data professionals ranked the data literacy in their organization as intermediate or low – and given the ever-growing amounts of data being collected, that data literacy gap needs to close, fast.

“If you look at IDC data coming out of Internet of Things sensors – that could be a sensor on your tire or a traffic light or on a boat in the ocean – the data that’s coming in there has now increased four hundred percent. That means that in the last year, 56 billion connected devices will generate 79 zettabytes of data,” said Sandy Carter, Vice President, WWPS Partners and Programs for Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

“We are seeing a gap, but a resurgence in the focus on data. We’re seeing more and more organizations try to utilize data in the cloud to make better business decisions,” she added.

“Whether an organization is a large enterprise or a small business, this data-led approach – especially as you’re digitizing – will turn out to be more and more important.”

Meanwhile, forward-thinking companies are also already thinking about the effect any new privacy laws or regulation could have on the collection of data.

“In the age of increasing privacy policies, the traditional methods brands used to target audiences are slowly becoming obsolete,” said Keith McLeod, Vice President, Marketing Operations, The New York Times. “I personally think right now that for brands, that’s the No. 1 thing we’re thinking about: how we will operate in the future without using cookies. You really can’t talk to your customers in the future in the way we know today.”

No Process is Safe from Scrutiny

Sometimes, being forward-thinking requires taking a long look at what you’ve done in the past.

That was true for The New York Times. As McLeod explained it, the company has transformed itself and remained effective and efficient in part by constantly re-evaluating its practices and processes.

“Let me set the table for everyone who might remember The New York Times as the old grey lady – at this point, it’s more than just a core newspaper or digital asset. We have products in cooking, games, we also have ventures in TV like Modern Love, working with Amazon. So it’s a huge entity. It’s a media company now with over seven million subscribers,” McLeod said. “As it pertains to innovation, when I think deeply about it, it’s not just technology innovation.”

“We spent a good part of the year essentially just doing addition by subtraction. We were decommissioning various tools and platforms that really no longer met our strategic initiatives,” he added.

“Really, our commitment and dedication to process and process re-engineering is part of our DNA.”

A Hard Look at Soft Skills

When looking ahead to an uncertain future, it’s tempting to focus on the hard, technical skills that will surely be needed to leverage the latest leading-edge technologies.

But several leaders on BrainStation’s panel pointed out that the most essential quality for thriving in an ever-changing landscape is actually a soft skill: curiosity.

“I actually lean more heavily on the soft skills than the technical skills,” said Gopalratnam. “I think empathy and experimentation and understanding of other people is so important in order to push any of our organizations forward.

“Along with that, I would describe curiosity as being really key and kind of indicative of whether someone is going to succeed or not.”

Carter agreed that an inquisitive nature is a quality most digital leaders seem to share.

“On average, we as adults only ask about 10 questions a day, but all of these digital leaders ask hundreds of questions a day,” said Carter, citing research in the book The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs.

“If you’ve ever been in a narrative review with Jeff Bezos, you know that’s true – he wants to know everything. He’s curious,” she continued. “I do believe that a digital leader needs to have digital literacy and the soft skills of curiosity to really breakthrough with those new disruptions that digital enables you to do.

Lessons From the Pandemic

No company could really have planned for the pandemic, so the recent health crisis tested virtually everyone’s ability to adapt and adjust. 

As Browarek Chapp explained, the lessons learned during this time are too valuable to be ignored.

“In this new world of digital leadership, we have to be flexible. The pandemic put us in a situation that nobody would have anticipated, but it’s also taught us that we can work remotely and we can still be successful companies driving change across the world,” Browarek Chapp said.

“I really encourage everybody to think about how in a future where things might be going back to normal, it’s going to be a new normal. It’s not the one that was before. And so how do we want to adapt the way our teams work together to build great products for customers? And what does that look like moving forward?”

Others on the panel agreed that, with help from work management platforms, having employees working from home hasn’t hurt productivity.

“Frankly, we’re actually delivering and getting products and assets out the door faster than we actually were in person,” McLeod said.

Want to become a digital leader? Find out more about BrainStation’s Digital Leadership and Innovation course.