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5 Shifts Every Leader Must Make

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In their book, “Lead and Disrupt,” O’Reilly and Tushman studied “Why do successful firms find it difficult to adapt in the face of change—to innovate?” The authors found that the problems weren’t strategy, resources, technology, or luck. “It has everything to do with leadership—and how leaders act in the face of change.” Leadership’s attitude to change ultimately determines whether an organization will sink or swim during unprecedented times. For example, Netflix understood that business success is about people—anticipating their needs, meeting them, and providing intangible value. In contrast, Blockbuster struggled to keep up with the pace of change and was left behind.

The world is experiencing a pandemic disruption that is changing our perspectives and beliefs about work. In particular:

• The balance of power has shifted from employers to employees.

• The employee value proposition has shifted from “work for me” to “work with me.”

• Employees favor a hybrid model versus going back to the office full time.

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• Employees are rethinking their purpose—they are searching for meaning, not activity. In particular, millennials are interested in working with purpose-driven companies rather than those focused on shareholder value.

The successful transition of the workforce from the known pre-pandemic world to the unknown post-pandemic world will depend on shifts leaders make to navigate this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment. According to Andy Grove, former chairman and CEO of Intel, “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis, Good companies survive them, Great companies are improved by them.”

As governments start to ease pandemic restrictions and employers prepare to welcome employees back to work. Below are five shifts leaders must make to transform the pandemic work disruption into a gift and opportunity:

#1 Focus on purpose: What kind of employees would leaders attract if they measured their value not from Wall Street but by improving people’s lives—resolving environmental, social, and governance issues? Your organization will attract and retain employees searching for meaning and not activity. According to Mckinsey, “70% of employees now demand purposeful work.” These purpose-driven employees are “6.5x more likely to report higher resilience, 6x to stay at the company, 1.5x likely to go above and beyond.” Also, shareholders and customers make choices in the market based on purpose and sustainability.

#2 Change your paradigm: The implications of the post-pandemic disruption on the future of work are still unknown. The biggest threat to finding lasting solutions is leadership’s attitude. Unfortunately, leaders often default to predictable models, apply them to clear problems, and leverage experts to find answers. Today’s environment is complex—the future is uncertain, and the application of available solutions can hurt rather than help. This mismatch of models to the problem has led to the demise of successful organizations.

Tim Elmore, the author of The Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership, said, “Uncommon leaders leverage both their vision and their blind spots. We must not fall in love with an idea but fall in love with a problem. If we fall in love with an idea, we may be blinded to the better idea that comes along later.” You can mandate people to return to work, but you can’t control their levels of engagement. The current problem is complex, which means the problem must be managed, not solved. Also, it requires a cautious and experimental approach to bring employees back to work.

#3 Shift from customer-first to people-first: It is widely known that Amazon Founder, Jeff Bezos, leaves an empty chair to represent the customers’ voice during the company’s most important meetings. In today’s world, you need two chairs, the customer and your employees. Like your customers, your employees are human beings. Howard Schultz, the former CEO and Chairman of Starbucks said, “We are not in the coffee business serving people, but in the people business serving coffee.” Simply, treat your employees with the same respect and passion as you would a customer.

Leaders that treat customers like kings but employees as tools will have a rude awakening. Employees have found their voice, and they express it through their feet—moving towards or away from employers who don’t recognize their value. Your employees are responsible for the products, services, and solutions that delight your customers. Engaged employees make happy and loyal customers. If your employees are not engaged, they won’t produce innovative products.

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In the post-pandemic workplace, the employee value proposition must center every strategy and company decision. It means a shift from “employees work for me” to “employees work with me” and “I own employee resources” to “I am a steward of employee resources.” This shift will inspire membership, not followership. Followers take on a subordinate role, while membership is about having an owner’s mindset—being contributors and co-builders of the vision. When your employees become co-owners, the output is increased engagement, innovation, collaboration, execution, and revenues.

#4 Embed your talent strategy into every phase of your business: Many organizations maximize their HR partners for recruiting, preventing exits, and employee relations issues. HR’s voice becomes hollow (taking notes, a fly on the wall, or the police) in strategy, organizational design, and execution conversations. This approach leverages a fraction of HR’s capability and limits your growth potential. Your HR partners are closest to the pulse of your organization, and they can leverage these insights to engage, energize, and unleash the power of your talent.

Leaders need to shift their mindset and see their HR partners as critical to their business success. It means contracting on what success looks like. Also, equip your HR partners by embedding them in strategy, execution, critical processes, and projects that deepen their business acumen. HR partners are your organization’s competitive advantage in the competitive marketplace and war for talent. If people are the greatest assets in your organization, then your HR partners are invaluable team members on your leadership table.

#5 Shift your leadership operating model: With the shift to digitization, small businesses have been struggling to keep up with consumers’ insatiable appetites and changes in technology. Costs associated with bigger, better, newer, and faster software and hardware were a burden. The X-as-a-service (XaaS) model (where X = platform, software, infrastructure, etc.) is catching on in these environments as an intangible value to customers while lowering the total cost of ownership by providing subscription-based technology. It helps business owners meet their customer needs by accessing the latest technology while keeping CapEx low.

The core of the XaaS model is putting your customers’ needs front and center. Similarly, your leadership operating model should evolve with the current environment. As we move forward into the post-pandemic world, organizations will thrive or become obsolete based on leadership changes that adapt to this new normal. What if the Leadership-as-a-service (LaaS) model in your organization is about making it easier for your employees to express their highest potential individually and collectively? The workplace then becomes any place where value is created. It would mean creating purpose-driven cultures where employees find meaning in their jobs, make their highest contributions, and deepen relationships. The LaaS model would increase work flexibility, productivity, well-being, employee satisfaction, and engagement. What shifts do you need to make to engage, energize and unleash your best talent in the unknown post-pandemic world?

Closing: Going back to work is generating mixed feelings for employees. There is no playbook to return employees to the office successfully. Issuing mandates is not the way to influence your employees to bring their best selves. With 70% of employees demanding purposeful work, there is less emphasis on finding dream jobs. Instead, employees want to work with leaders who foster cultures that enable them to pursue and experience their dream lives. Today’s complex environment calls for curious leaders to see the current complex environment as a gift and opportunity to reflect, re-imagine, and change the world.

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