For leaders, the future of work is now. Shifts that we anticipated would occur over the coming decade happened virtually overnight as the pandemic forced new ways of working on organisations around the world. The good news is that these shifts were inevitable.
Today’s environment is simply helping smart leaders make the necessary changes immediately and more decisively, and strengthening their businesses now and for the years ahead. Here are 10 things you need to do now to be successful today and build for tomorrow:
1. Allocate your time to activities that will make your business iconic
Good leaders focus on the most important activities of the time – those that will set the organisation apart (make you iconic) now. Ruthlessly delegate the mature activities to others and visibly spend your time and attention on the new. Ensure both the organisational design (structure and processes) and leadership behaviours encourage what’s important now.
Ask: What will set my business apart from competitors in 2030? Am I focused on these activities? Go through your personal diary and reallocate how you invest your time.
2. Accept that the era of heroic leadership is over
Today’s most important activities involve mobilising intelligence. To succeed, you must:
- Innovate: combine knowledge and expertise to come up with something new or better
- Sense: anticipate market and environmental shifts; detect customers’ unmet needs
- Customise: create insightful relationships and individual offerings
- Collaborate: structure processes and create ecosystems to gain strength through numbers
- Adapt: structure assets to create options and allow choice; respond flexibly and fast
- Learn: experiment with new approaches; select and embed the best in ongoing activities; build individual capabilities.
In the 1900s leaders strove to achieve scale with maximum efficiency and lowest cost. They standardised, optimised and ensured compliance. Now, the most important activities can’t be required or forced. You won’t even know if people are doing their best or simply going through the motions. They require discretionary effort – people must care enough to choose to give their best.
Ask: Does my organisation stimulate discretionary effort, or continue to rely on the metrics of efficiency and compliance?
3. Leaders’ roles today are to shape environments in which people will choose to do great work
Organisations should choose leaders based on their demonstrated ability to create great work environments. Choose those whom others want to be led by. Promote leaders whose teams convey a sense of passion, commitment and new ideas. Look for leaders whose team members are more valuable after working with them. As a leader, disrupt, intrigue, connect and engage. This is the four-part leadership model for today and for the future.
4. Disrupt your organisation with continual exposure to and thoughtful consideration of new ideas
Ensure everyone in the organisation is alert to possible changes. Bring in provocative or unsettling ideas. Send people out to see what’s happening elsewhere. Most importantly, legitimise and celebrate diverse ideas, while creating time to make sense of new perspectives.
Here are just a few practical tips:
- Schedule sessions to think together
- Teach and use design-thinking tools
- Share articles on new trends and ideas
- Bring in provocative speakers
- Hire people from diverse backgrounds.
5. Intrigue everyone with tasks that they perceive as being both challenging and important
People are most likely to “dig deep” and go the extra mile if they feel their work is vital and interesting. Leaders must facilitate identifying important tensions, unmet needs and opportunities. Ask great questions, focusing on specific customers and phrased as, “How might we…?” Teach and encourage experimentation, instituting hackathons and tracking the number of new things tried.
6. Connect by building your organisation’s ‘collaborative capacity’
It’s not your job as leader to tell people when to collaborate – but you need to make collaboration easy, especially if and when it can only be virtual. Build a network of trust-based relationships, make communications easy and efficient, and role-model cooperative actions. Make sure ideas flow easily and quickly in all directions.
- Conduct an informal network analysis – identify influencers and the isolated, and organise events to create new relationships
- Make sure every task team has at least 25% new members
- Have strong technology that allows easy communications at distance
- Help individuals identify who they should know in order to be effective in their roles.
7. Engage by understanding and exceeding implied promises
Communicate goals that are unique and compelling and understand the implicit promise embedded in these statements. What would a reasonable person expect from an organisation that says these things? The entire experience of both customers and employees must deliver that expectation.
- Ask people why they chose to join your company – listen for the patterns
- Then ask people if the experience has met their expectations – pinpoint the gaps
- Make sure your company message is true, unique and compelling, and consistent with why people joined
- Imagine how to demonstrate these promises through actions. Provide a lot of whatever people joined to get (learning, challenge, fun, stability)
- Design rituals specific to your organisation that illustrate your values (purpose, promise). In this virtual environment, it’s okay to go “over the top”.
Great environments are shaped by leaders’ actions. But beyond new roles for leaders, many characteristics of our organisations will also need to be revised. Follow these three principles: options, choice, trust.
8. Leaders must create options: Own less, plan less
Options are integral to creating agility, flexibility and responsiveness. They give people on the frontline a sense of control and choice. Leaders must systematically review the organisation’s assets, including work arrangements, creating options for agility, where appropriate. Assets, positions or people that it increasingly would be smart not to own include those characterised by uncertainty regarding future demand for the resource or skill, fluctuations in current demand and wide availability outside the organisation.
9. Ensure the organisation offers choice whenever possible
Processes can be designed either to dictate rules or offer choices. Leaders should strive to create a “community of adults”, allowing people to express preferences regarding a wide variety of work conditions, such as the amount of time invested, when and where to work, how far to collaborate, how much challenge to offer, which skills they prefer to develop and what they expect to be paid.
Teach people how to make decisions using the same thought process you would go through. This is the practical way to empower.
10. Actively build trust. It will be the glue that holds organisations together
One of the most important ways to build two-way trust is to emphasise increasing the human asset value of everyone in your organisation. This helps your people feel secure, as they gain new skills and thus broader options – and it helps the organisation feel comfortable in allowing individuals to take on more.
Compete for talent based on how the market values work experience within your organisation. Be known as the best source of talent in specific disciplines or capabilities, create a learning environment filled with teaching and new challenges, and consider offering “badges” – credentials with commercial value.
Ask: Does association with our organisation increase an individual’s value as a human asset?
The days when leaders needed to be alone out in front – the smartest, the most charismatic person – are over. Great leaders today think like engineers to create an environment where talented people choose to join and choose to do great work.
Tammy Erickson is the Academic Director and lead faculty for 'Leading Businesses Into the Future' at London Business School