Karen L Brice on why leaders have to be great listeners, the millennials bending the rules of workplace hierarchy and the importance of values-led leadership
Leading in the age of responsive businesses
Technology is completely transforming the way we work, long-held traditions are being increasingly challenged and very few willingly stick their necks out and say what the future holds anymore – because it’s invariably wrong.
One thing that is becoming clearer however is that this uncertainty calls for a certain kind of leader. A leader who really knows how to embrace change and knows the benefits of building an agile and optimistic organisation that is set up to take advantage of it too.
The leader of today believes in a higher purpose for their organisation beyond profit and welcomes ideas from all levels in service of that. Leaders need to stop thinking they have all the answers, and get out and ask questions, ‘Are we the best we can be?’ or, ‘Could we better?’ They need to remain open-minded like never before, considering original solutions to get their organisation ahead. The best leaders are at the vanguard, transforming themselves and their businesses faster than their competitors.
Trailblazers of tomorrow
When Michael Bloomberg announced in June that the new Bloomberg London HQ will be a ‘no-canteen zone’, he revealed a lot about himself as a leader. He demonstrated his style of values-led leadership by demonstrating the business’s commitment to have its people contribute actively to the vibrant, local economy of which they will be a part. It may be that Bloomberg is going against the grain at a time when many large businesses are building workplaces that cater for every whim, but it goes a long way in demonstrating his desire to pitch the purpose as beyond the business and into the wider world.
His values-led leadership stands out as a trailblazer. It’s just one example of new world leadership. By his ensuring his board responded to the growing concerns from communities that large corporations (like shopping malls before them) were isolating their people from their local communities and so stifling the latter’s ability to grow and prosper, he connected with the higher purpose. Many people I know value Mr Bloomberg’s decision and it would be great if more businesses sought out ways to bring the outside world into the office.
Connected, considerate leadership
But, you can only be responsive if you listen to your people. Too often, I hear people telling me their leaders aren’t present enough. Leaders expect engagement from their people and these days, people also expect engagement from their leaders. Getting out on the floor and delivering the ‘state of the nation’ address just isn’t enough, People expect greater connectivity, both through innovative media channels and close contact conversations about what they are excited about, what they’re looking forward to, and what worries them. Leaders need to challenge their own norms and behaviours if they are to remain relevant.
The old leadership model of ‘distance’ and ‘tell’ does not fit anymore. The great leaders of today and tomorrow are really connecting with their people and are seeking ways for them to drive the business. And this isn’t just soft ‘new age’ leadership thinking. There is strong commercial case for creating that empowered thinking at all levels. Organisations where people have a voice around positive factors such as performance and growth are much more likely to be strong brand advocates and look for ways of proving their value. This altruistic approach is a win/win for the leaders and the people.
And so to the pithy conversations of the moment – millennials. There are many who think there is too much play made of this group and yet, with the acceleration of technology comes an employee generation who have grown up with it as an integral part of their world. These new kids on the block act differently; they bring different expertise but they also bring different demands, and enlightened leaders are encouraging their organisations to sit up and take notice; not pay lip service.
This requires sensitive messaging for those who don’t see the benefits and ask “Why should this group get special treatment?” – And it’s a good question. One reason is that they comprise a growing segment of the UK workforce. In the US, they surpassed Gen Xers as the largest generation in the workplace in 2015 – and we aren’t far behind. They connect with the world with a pace and passion that leaves many of us bewildered. But it’s their world not ours that is the future.
According to think tank the Brookings Institute, millennials put an emphasis on corporate social responsibility, care about the environment and are more interested in experiences than material things1. To secure bright millennial talent, leaders need to develop cultures that reflect this ‘millennial attitude’. Importantly, they must reward talent, not length of tenure and create opportunities for team members to be their own boss.
A new leadership tradition
It’s not just a new generation placing demands on leadership, but the new jobs created in the wake of technological leaps forward. Careers in coding, UX, app development and similar do not demand a traditional university education. Instead, they are taken up by people of all ages who have often found the time at work and at home to take their professional destiny into their own hands and teach themselves new skills. Recruiting processes should value this, by looking beyond traditional qualifications and embracing new thinking where necessary. The Apprenticeship Levy is a growing success story for the government in their millennial manifesto, but is it a flagship or an outlier? And as leaders in your organisation, what are you doing to challenge the old norms and reinvent your employee experience and workplaces?
Leadership that is fit for the future needs to embrace the new ways of thinking and act swiftly to pace it, not oppose. It involves creating organisations where people are empowered to generate the cultures and skills they need to manage themselves as teams. It requires workplaces where people are encouraged to collaborate and which enable agile thinking and creativity; and this is where the leaders of the future are born – whether they are 20, 40 60 or more.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Bloomberg or a start-up, a leadership style that unlocks people’s creativity, rewards proactivity and helps develop a workplace culture capable of evolving in the face of internal and external changes will triumph in the future world of work.
Contact Karen Brice.