ArLyne's Diamonds

A running commentary of ideas

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Leadership in the 21st Century: What Makes it Different?

I recently spoke to about 120 college students – the leaders of tomorrow. My topic was “Leadership in the 21st Century”. I tried to give them a sense of how times have changed and what they needed to consider as they moved forward in their careers. I want to share some of my talk’s highlights with you.

Today, we are leading and managing in a global economy: In the past, we worked with people who lived near us, went to the same schools and houses of worship, and shared the same culture. It was relatively easy to understand the people with whom we interacted. If we hadn’t known them personally before, we probably knew their siblings. People from all parts of the world are now working side by side. They come from different cultures and speak different languages.

Their beliefs and values differ, as do the ways they’ve been managed. Thus, we need to learn new styles of management. We also are now a workplace of men and women, whereas in the past, genders largely operated separately. So our challenge today is to work with, and lead and manage, people who are different from us.

Today, the way we interact with others at work is changing, too: In the past, we communicated with people face-to-face. They were members of the same team, located in the same room. If they worked in other departments, we could walk from where we were to where they were and see them in person. This gave us valuable information and enabled us to develop positive working relationships.

Yesterday, we could “manage by walking around”, actually seeing and talking with the people we managed. Today, people work from home, or are located across the country or in other parts of the world.

Yet we are expected to work with them in teams, and to manage and lead them effectively. So we use e-mail, social media, Skype, and other technical tools. The advantage to this, of course, is that we can communicate with people all over the world without getting on planes. The disadvantage is that under these circumstances, it is much more difficult to create positive workplace relationships, to build trust, understanding, and rapport.

Today, technology and how we use it change almost minute by minute: I may be showing my age here, but I grew up before desktop computers even existed. I acquired my first while finishing my doctoral dissertation. It was a large computer that ran on a DOS operating system and performed mainly word processing. But over the years we’ve gone from desktops to laptops to minis to tablets. Soon we will just have chips implanted in our bodies. Phones have evolved, too, from dial-ups plugged into the wall to push-button, to cordless, and to cell phones that are getting smaller and smaller and becoming capable of doing more and more.

This is exciting, but it’s also chaotic. Too frequently, we must learn new ways of working. Instead of increasing our efficiency, these innovations often reduce it during the training phase. Then, once we’ve learned how to use a new software program or technical tool, something new comes along and we’re forced to adapt again.

Today, businesses creating products that cause such “disruptions” are considered exciting: Why? Because the technologies they offer are so different and imaginative they change the way we work, think, and interact. My Nook is a good example. I can now purchase and upload hundreds of books onto a small tablet that allows me to increase and decrease the font size to suit my comfort. I’ve considered donating some books in my personal collection to a public library – a thought I wouldn’t have entertained even a year ago. Businesses getting funded today are primarily those that create disruptive technologies.

But what is happening to stable and continuing ideas, services, and products? I fear our quest for newness often leads us to adopting fads – especially in my field of consulting. Most of us don’t offer anything new, exciting, different, or disruptive. We provide clear, concise, practical solutions to workplace problems. How boring to those wanting the newest fad!

Today, we are leading and managing an educated workforce: Few jobs (especially here in California) involve simple task accomplishment. Thus, managers must hire well, paying attention during interviews to how candidates answer questions, because that’s a clue to their intelligence (as well as that of the interviewers, I hasten to add). Moreover, we need to be sure there’s a company-culture (as differentiated from a country-culture) fit, because we rely on people to work in teams. In addition, we must manage today’s educated employees differently. Whips and bullying won’t work. A “funnel theory” of management is at play where you start with tight control, and as you get to know the employees and they get to know you, you may loosen control.

Also today, we must delegate and share the decision-making process. For many people this isn’t easy, and it’s especially difficult for leaders who started and nurtured their company themselves. It’s hard to let go and let others do it their way, which may differ from yours. Because of the complicated nature of work these days, the annual performance appraisal is worthless (although in my opinion it always has been).

Employees require frequent feedback; that is, they need to know in a timely manner that they are hitting the dartboard. Because of the aforementioned complex work, and the place in which we are doing it (home, office, another country), creating standards of accountability, and managing for them, are more difficult.

Today, creating and managing a positive emotional environment are harder too: Time and again, studies have shown that the emotional relationship people have with their teammates and supervisors plays a huge role in whether they stay or change jobs even during a recession. Yes, there will always be people who remain in a horrible job because they desperately need the money but, generally speaking, people stay where they feel good. Many organizations are developing software and Internet-related technologies that their employees may or may not see as helping humanity.

If you work for a hospital, a pharmaceutical company, or an outfit that’s developing better and safer ways to deliver food, you probably feel good about what you’re doing. But as a whole, it’s becoming more difficult for people to feel the job they perform is important. One development that’s enabling both organizations and their employees to feel better about themselves is companies’ growing awareness of their responsibility to the community.

Thus, they’re allowing – indeed encouraging – employees to give time as well as money to community service. Walks for organizations like the Red Cross and heart, diabetes, and cancer associations have become company activities. Allowing employees this avenue of service improves the bottom line – rather than reducing it – by enhancing the company’s image, increasing employees’ motivation and productivity, and advancing team development.

Today, we work primarily in teams, leading to increased conflict: When you work autonomously, or even as part of a group on an assembly line, your job is clearly defined and separate from the person next to you. So there’s little need for compatibility and understanding. However, the complex work we do these days requires teamwork, or at least frequent interaction with others. But since people are different, getting along is complicated. Team facilitators often make “storming” the first step in the team development process.

The term means disagreeing and allowing conflict to arise. Disagreements are natural and should be permitted. But all too often people are forced to quell their opinions in the interest of getting along. It is important to allow disagreement because dangerously bad decisions may be made if people are unwilling to speak up when they disagree. Team members from all cultures and parts of the world, no matter their gender or age, not only must learn to understand one another, but develop a common working culture while remaining creative and unique. Not easy!

Today, we tend to reject older people, failing to realize they have wisdom to offer:  especially here in Silicon Valley, we are so youth-oriented we assume that those over thirty have nothing new to provide. Yesterday, we revered the wisdom of our elders, both here and more obviously in many other cultures. When you looked at the upper echelon of a corporation, you saw many gray hairs. I’m hoping tomorrow will bring recognition that we older folk have a great deal to offer. There’s reason to hope. I recently heard the twenty-something CEO of a successful “green” software firm mention that her team recognized the importance of employing executives with leadership and managerial history. She called this having “adult supervision”.

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