Future-proofing leadership

As with future-proofing for our employees, as leaders we also need to assess our gaps and ensure we are reinforcing our own connection to our values and upskilling our leadership skills.

The last two years have been filled with upheaval, and never has authentic and empathetic leadership been more important than now as employees reach a new level of tired. Comparing Gartner workforce change survey results shows a sharp decrease from 2016 (74 percent) to 2022 (38 percent) in the number of employees willing to modify work behaviors to support organizational changes. 

As leaders in challenging times, we need to step up. First, to help employees stay connected to the organizational culture and values through difficult times. Not doing this effectively builds cynicism, damages trust and perpetuates attrition. Second, to prepare the next set of leaders in a way that is inclusive and emphasizes future-proof leadership skills such as agility and critical thinking. We know better, but we have a way to go to do better. 

Culture connection: What is rewarded is perpetuated

Building connection to your company culture is about being consistent and deliberate. Notice where and how your organization’s and your own leadership values are visible. Conduct a values audit to uncover where (and where not) this is the case. Review systems and processes, and your own actions. 

You can start by answering the following: 

  • If DEI is important, what leadership pipeline programs are in place and how are promotions handled? Are there standard processes and are they transparent (or part of the unwritten culture)? Is unconscious bias discussed during talent reviews? 
  • If respect is a value, are leaders having tough feedback conversations? Are employees raising issues that need addressing? Or do conversations remain neutral and allow problems to fester? 
  • Are your values embedded into the criteria for recognition awards or are they absent? 

We intuitively know: 

  • work is meaningful when people associate with the values or purpose of the company, 
  • meaningful work leads to engaged employees, and 
  • engaged employees are more productive.

Despite this understanding, there are leaders in every organization still putting the “what” far above the “how,” meaning a “win at all costs” approach rather than winning through values-based actions. What can leaders in talent do about it? How can we equip leaders across the organization to discourage damaging behaviors? 

When values are embedded into both peer-to-peer recognition and into company-wide recognition awards, they reinforce the positive values and desired behaviors. For example, nominations for a top sales award that require an explanation of how one or more of the company values were displayed. When values are not embedded, a values vacuum occurs, which can directly contradict the stated values. For instance, when, despite a company value of respect, the person who wins the top company award is known for their disrespectful behavior. 

This disconnect will lead to a toxic culture and ultimately to unwanted and expensive attrition. Embedding values throughout organizational tools creates a platform for all leaders to reinforce values. Amid the Great Reset where employees are choosing quality of life over living to work, empty values statements aren’t good enough anymore.

Listen, act, tell 

The pandemic presented us with new changes and challenges including safety protocols, rapid adoption of technology and restructuring, resulting in the Great Reset. Many companies got communication right in the early days of the pandemic but fast forward almost three years and many of the early pandemic communication tools have rightfully slowed; there’s nothing new to add to that intranet site and questions about remote work have all been asked and answered (whether or not we liked the outcome). Two simple but crucial factors in the post-pandemic world are still often missed: timely updates and listening to employees. Why bother with these? Simple: If you’re not losing employees right now, they just haven’t given their notice. 

Two-way communication remains a critical way of understanding employee priorities and of providing information to keep employees engaged, supported, productive and focused. Arguably the most popular and underutilized listening tool is the employee survey. Showing progress on major organizational items in less than a year is tough so shift to bi-annual employee surveys. However, two years is too long not to have any employee input. Conduct regular pulse surveys in between and provide interim listening opportunities. Pulse surveys should be tailored to specific business units, locations, roles, or topics to customize questions and make progress on items that matter locally. 

Nothing creates cynicism like the perception of employee input disappearing into a black hole, and yet so often the work isn’t shared widely enough. This impacts trust and employee willingness to respond to future requests for feedback. Communicate the behind-the-scenes work that is happening in response to feedback, even when progress is slow. Any survey results offer the opportunity to:

  • showcase employee suggestions, 
  • demonstrate organizational progress on items important to employees, and ultimately 
  • increase trust in the source of the input and in the ways the information will be used. 

Too often, corporate communications is not part of the original planning and messages are drafted in a rush or publication is delayed. Prepare your communication plan in advance and include regular progress updates in your corporate communications calendar. 

There is no single fix for cutting through the noise that employees are bombarded with every day and ensuring they receive the tools needed to weather difficult times. Depending on what you have in place already, the following have been successful recently in various organizations: 

  • ongoing intranet blog posts plus QR codes on hard copy posters; 
  • line-of-business-specific town halls, emails and/or newsletters; 
  • Microsoft Teams broadcast messages; and 
  • on-site poster campaigns. 

What got us here won’t get us there, so get ready, get set, develop! 

Our next responsibility as leaders is to ensure we are deepening and broadening the leadership bench to include a diverse group of leaders. For a long time, leadership has been a singular description that ignored the benefits of different styles and of the human skills listed above. When we all strive to fit the same leadership mold, we decrease innovation, miss market share and become mired in groupthink. 

Adam Grant’s research found we also risk employees not speaking up to improve procedures and correct faulty practices. Diverse (in visible and invisible ways) leadership teams offer a solution to this quagmire. To start, leadership programs and promotion discussions need to:

  • acknowledge a variety of successful leadership styles, or, as Dan Pink asserts, “consciously expand our notion of what a leader looks like.” 
  • seek and provide learning opportunities that reflect and encourage deep and broad leadership development through broader sources of speakers and materials, 
  • offer creative, external opportunities such as sitting on non-profit boards or associations, and 
  • provide rotations and on-the-job assignments in other business units.

We’ve seen the research about the importance of a diverse group of leaders and about the types of leadership skills(see also “human skills” and Simon Sinek’s YouTube talk on “no such thing as soft skills”) needed today. Human skills such as empathy, communication, trust and influencing skills are critical and should be developed with the same rigour as any other competency. But we continue to prioritize the financial, system/tools, or business acumen development over these human skills. We are failing our current and future leaders with this gap. A Fast Company study outlines the impact of this rigour; management performance was increased about twice as much as for the control group.

Skills for the future 

We cannot fix what is broken using the same tools for the solution as the tools that got us to this point. When creating development programs for our talent pipeline, two important considerations are relevance and future-proofing. PWC’s recent Workforce of the future: The competing forces shaping 2030 report describes the future as “dynamic” and cites a need to be ready for evolving scenarios rather than a fixed, single future view. Distilling human skills into those most broadly relevant presents us with agility and adaptability as key opportunities for development. Critical thinking to evaluate new technology advances and to strike the right balance between people and technology will also be important. 

What can you do now to future-proof your talent pipeline? Notice what functions are most impacted by your industry’s technological advances and prioritize the human skills those teams will most need. Assess gaps, then get started on development now. Reskilling now rather than waiting, future-proofs your people rather than having to worry about protecting their jobs in the future as the technology expands. 

Formal development then needs to be delivered in a variety of formats to suit different learning styles and job requirements (e.g. shift work, site / office, cross-geographies) and offer practical ways to integrate learning. 

For example, a recent successful program at a national company combined two in-person weeks with practical assignments to implement the tools back in the leaders’ work. In between the in-person weeks, virtual peer group discussions on challenges and successes of implementation enabled group problem solving before a final presentation during the second week of in-person learning. Another development program blended leaders across the globe by mixing lines of business to facilitate new connections. This spawned impromptu learner-led accountability groups that met between sessions to discuss application and challenges. In both examples, company-wide communication channels showcased the successes and encouraged others to pursue their own implementation.

As with future-proofing for our employees, as leaders we also need to assess our gaps and ensure we are reinforcing our own connection to the values and upskilling our leadership skills to include those human skills, such as adaptability, authenticity and empathy, now known to be so critical for success as a leader now and into the future.