‘Mood based’ working areas which eliminate a designated desk and chair, an emphasis on wellness and healthy working environments, blurred boundaries between home and work are all characteristics of the future of our working environment. Gone are the days of arriving at your office desk at 8am to start work, morning tea in the staff tea room at 10am, lunch at 12 and home at 5pm. Skype conversations replace water cooler banter. Work starts before you walk out of the door in the morning and only finishes when you put your phone down at the end of the day. Such is the changing nature of work.
Not only is the physical nature of work changing but the expectations that employees have of their work place have also shifted. Interviewing for a new staff member is starting to look more like a democratic process where the participants are looking for a best fit. Rather than the power relationship of the past, applicants are taking a more active role in the process. In the U.S., the website www.glassdoor.com provides a platform for current employees to go online and anonymously rate their experience and post reviews of the company where they work so that potential employees can decide whether or not to go ahead with that job application. Companies can neither alter nor filter the reviews.
But it is the millennial generation (or people born from the 1980’s to 2000) who are entering the job market that are helping to turn the working environment on its head. Perhaps learning from the era where personal grievances were a common occurrence, they are looking for more in their work than just turning up for a day job. In a 2014 study by Bersin from Deloitte, Josh Bersin captured the essence of the survey outcomes in this quote: “millennials are not looking for a career; they’re looking for an experience”. The survey found that 71% of millennials say businesses should do more to improve living standards and 78% say innovation influences their choice of employer. The not so good? 75% say their organisation could do more to create future leaders, 61% think management is the biggest barrier to innovation and just 20% trust business leaders to make ethical, honest decisions.
Overseas companies like Google and Zappos are well known for their innovative employee culture and workspaces but we are also seeing this replicated in New Zealand. Dunedin based Education Perfect, an online education platform, is starting to use this new model of leadership. Georgia Anderson (20), employee, describes the culture as “vibrant”. “We focus on outcomes not timesheets”, says Georgia. “The flexibility around choosing when I work means that I can continue my studies and make sure that I work when I am at my best (which is not at 8am)! There is a great vibe where someone says: I’m going to lunch, does anyone want to come with me?”
The sense of empowerment, personal responsibility and collegiality is no accident. Scott Cardwell, Marketing Manager at Education Perfect says “After reading lots of books and meeting with our team we’re really starting to see that this style of leadership suits our business. It’s certainly a work in progress but we’re excited to be taking steps towards a more flexible, staff focussed environment that can attract and retain the best people in the world!”
Traditional models of leadership
It’s not surprising that in this changing work environment the traditional leadership models based on ‘command and control’ where ‘leaders know best’ are no longer effective. Leadership and management have typically relied on a ‘top down’ hierarchal structure to manage people and budgets. Key performance indicators, policy and strict lines of reporting are features of this model. The CEO sits in their own office, separated from their workforce by a personal assistant who filters calls and meetings. When one employee bends the rules, rather than addressing this individually, a new policy for all staff to restrict that behaviour is generated. Staff are given instructions, performance is rewarded and dissent is discouraged.
While staff have clear understanding of the division of work within this traditional structure, the unintended consequences are dissonance between leaders and workers and a silo effect between different departments within an organisation.
Perhaps not surprisingly, ‘employee engagement’ has arisen as a field of interest for human resource practitioners. The frustration experienced by business leaders at the lack of responsibility and commitment from their employees is matched only by the frustration of employees who perceive poor leadership, lack of communication and working long hours for little appreciation.
The link between employee engagement and improved organisational performance is one reason for the rise in popularity in the topic. In a 2011 study in the United States, Bob Lavigna, Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, found that ‘high engagement organisations are almost 20% more productive than their low-engagement counterparts.’ But it is the premise that employee engagement can be enhanced through leadership skills that has lead to leaders and human resource practitioners taking interest in improving levels of staff engagement.
The future of leadership
What is clear is that the ‘command and control’ style of leadership does not fit well with millennials. However, it’s not just this generation who are beginning to question the traditional structures of work. With the impact of technology there is a desire from people of all ages for increased flexibility and work/life balance in the workplace.
The need for a fit between personal values and lifestyle along with work values and career leads to a sense of self-determination, personal responsibility and empowerment. Individuals develop their own ‘brand’, ‘selling’ their skills to an organisation with the flexibility of working either as an employee or as a contractor. They are prepared to change roles in order to seek engagement, experience and social connection. The sense of loss of control and authority is enough to blast baby boomer leaders out of the water.
The challenge for leaders is to be able to harness that sense of responsibility and channel it into a focus on outcomes rather than giving instructions. This sense of empowerment helps to develop leaders across different levels of the organisation. Start by defining what leadership looks like within your workplace. For example, leadership can mean to care, empower, help to become a better person, be authentic, have integrity, be genuine, or help people grow.
Increasingly leaders are required to be more open and engaging with staff. This collaborative style of leadership relies heavily on emotional intelligence and self-awareness. For Lees Seymour, CEO of Nelson Management Limited, attending an international leadership programme for senior executives was a game changer. The focus was not on skill development but on personal development and understanding of self as a leader. “Colleagues gave feedback on our performance and this was used as a framework to understand our personal barriers and blocks,” says Lees. “From there, we completed a dream and visioning exercise to think about where we wanted to be in five years’ time. It was incredibly powerful.” The other critical aspect of the programme was appreciating diversity. “People from different cultures, religion and ethnicities attended the programme. If you had told me in advance that the person I would most connect with would be a director of an oil company from Oman of Islamic faith, I would not have believed you.”
Leadership has needed to stay dynamic and responsive to change in order to reflect societal and technological needs. These latest advancements in leadership changes are another cog in a constantly changing continuum. As Shawn Parr, CEO of the U.S. company Bulldog, stated “a vibrant culture is organic and evolving. It is fuelled and inspired by leadership that is actively involved and informed about the realities of the business. Leaders genuinely care about the company’s role in the world and are passionately engaged. They are great communicators and motivators who set out a clearly communicated vision, mission, values, and goals and create an environment for them to come alive.” The question is, as a leader are you up to the challenge?
Five steps to changing your leadership style:
- Ensure that you have clear vision, mission and values statements specific to your organisation.
- Define the leadership behaviours you wish to foster.
- Outline the employer brand that you want to create.
- Identify the leaders in your organisation – those with leadership roles and those informal leaders that others look up to.
- Develop a strategy to implement your leadership culture – both formal i.e. leadership training and informal i.e. coaching and feedback.
By Julie Varney