Founder & CEO of ExecOnline, an enterprise platform partnered with top business schools to deliver online leadership development programs.
Think back to where you were this time last year or even six months ago: Odds are your vision of the future was nowhere near your current reality, and the people you’re looking to for guidance were not even on your radar then.
In life, leaders emerge in crises because they’re able to react in unexpected situations. In business, leaders are trained to deal with crises, but usually within a range of predictable scenarios. The confluence of Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter, however, has forced a societal reckoning that was anything but predictable.
It’s no longer enough for business leaders to move faster along a predictable path. To be future-ready, the next generation of leaders needs a more holistic approach: the business acumen to adapt to new market imperatives, the empathy to provide for the well-being of their employees and the awareness to build an inclusive culture that serves as a meaningful foundation for expanding diversity.
Business transformation has become an overnight imperative.
Companies have talked about the need for digital transformation for years. While many made the leap, some digitized or automated certain processes and many others figured they had more time.
The reality is that Covid-19 has disrupted global business far more than previous concerns about competing with digital natives. I’ve seen that many companies that waited are fighting for survival; companies that made some changes are evaluating their sustainability; and companies with a comprehensive digital strategy are thriving.
Yet with everyone carving out space online, leaders need to think about how to differentiate themselves and, in some cases, how to operate. How do pharmacy representatives get onto a doctor’s packed telehealth schedule? How do luxury retailers offer customers the same tactile experience in a digital space?
Change always brings opportunities for leaders with vision. But investments in research and development won’t help if you don’t already understand exactly how your company operates and how far those innovations will actually take you. The future-ready leader has the business acumen to understand where the company has been and where it needs to be and the confidence to switch from Plan A to Plan Z to get there.
Virtual empathy requires real effort.
Many people are resistant to change. It’s not that we don’t like new things; it’s more that we like better versions of familiar things. These are not familiar circumstances we’re in, and it’s affecting all of us in different ways.
Before Covid-19, if you worked in an office with your team, you were more easily attuned to what was happening with your colleagues. Now, learning about and being empathetic to co-workers’ challenges has to be an intentional act conducted virtually.
One of the things I’ve done and coached our leaders to do is explicitly create time to ask employees about their families and challenges, and actively listen to what they say. People often feel the need to put on a brave face for their work persona, and we leaders might miss out on real issues because of it. It’s important to create a safe space where those hard-and-fast rules blur a bit and we’re all supporting one another.
In addition to time for checking in, it’s also important to offer flexible work schedules, corporate resources and encourage people to take time off. As we have spoken with leaders from our client organizations, it is clear that employee burnout is a major concern. However that looks — employees who are less productive, participate less or are considering leaving the company altogether — the key is to prioritize issues before they become unmanageable. The well-being of your company is directly related to the well-being of the people staffing it.
Leaders must foster inclusion to expand diversity.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, we’re witnessing a global social awakening with a lot of talk about equality, equity, diversity and inclusion. While these conversations aren’t new, the current climate seems to be spurring some leaders to make real change.
There’s demonstrable interest right now in learning about fostering diversity and inclusion. It’s important for leaders in particular to understand the distinction. Inclusion means you’re creating an environment for all people in your organization to be successful. Diversity means the people you have in your organization are supported by that foundation.
Take an executive meeting, for example: When you bring a new face to the table, it’s incumbent on you as the leader to support that person’s standing with the group. This encourages them to participate and confirms for the people who were already comfortable in this scenario the value they bring.
When you expand moments like these into the culture of your organization, you reap added value. Not only can you inspire other diverse people in the company to pursue a career with you, but also they, in turn, can help recruit additional diverse talent who see a place and a path for themselves in your organization.
Navigating Leadership In The ‘New Normal’
Our personal and professional lives have become highly entwined. Without daily commutes and many of the distractions of “outside” life, we’re spending more time talking to loved ones about things we might not have before, such as economic and racial inequality, environmental challenges and social responsibility.
Even pre-pandemic, big brands were under scrutiny for their labor practices, and ethical sourcing had become part of the decision-making process for many consumers.
With an increasing focus on how we live and what we value, more companies will be under pressure to think about their corporate mission as something broader than the bottom line. Gaining consumer trust now goes beyond product promise and into realms where many companies have not gone before.
That’s the role of a future-ready leader: to have an integrated philosophy on how to deliver business results while effectively supporting broader change, to be the person who looks at the rippling effects of the pandemic and social equity struggles and recognizes there’s no “going back.” There are only the many unseen opportunities that lie ahead.
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