In their book, “Lead and Disrupt”, O’Reilly and Tushman studied “Why do successful companies struggle to adapt in the face of change – to innovate?” The authors found that the problems were not related to strategy, resources, technology or luck. “It has everything to do with leadership and how leaders act in the face of change.” Leadership’s attitude to change ultimately determines whether an organization will sink or swim through unprecedented times. For example, Netflix understands that business success is about people: anticipating their needs, meeting them, and delivering intangible value. In contrast, Blockbuster struggled to keep up with the pace of change and was left behind.
The world is experiencing a pandemic disruption that is changing our perspectives and beliefs about how we work. Specifically:
• The balance of power has shifted from employers to employees.
• Employee value proposition changed from “working for me” to “working with me”.
• Employees prefer a hybrid model rather than a full-time return to the office.
• Employees are rethinking their purpose—they are looking for meaning, not activity. In particular, millennials are interested in working with goal-oriented companies rather than those focused on shareholder value.
The successful transition of the workforce from the known pre-pandemic world to the unknown post-pandemic world will depend on the changes leaders make to navigate this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment. According to Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, “Bad companies are destroyed by the crisis, good companies survive them, great companies are better off”.
As governments begin to ease pandemic restrictions and employers prepare to welcome employees back to work. Below are five changes leaders need to make to turn the pandemic labor disruption into a gift and an opportunity:
#1 Focus on the goal: What kind of employees would leaders attract if they measured their value not from Wall Street but by improving people’s lives, by solving environmental, social and governance problems? Your organization will attract and retain employees in search of meaning and not activity. According to McKinsey, “70% of employees now demand meaningful work.” These determined employees are “6.5 times more likely to report greater resilience, 6 times more likely to stay with the company, 1.5 times more likely to go beyond”. Moreover, shareholders and customers make choices in the market based on their purpose and sustainability.
#2 Change the paradigm: The implications of the post-pandemic disruption on the future of work are still unknown. The greatest threat to finding lasting solutions is the attitude of leadership. Unfortunately, leaders often default to predictable models, apply them to clear problems, and bring in experts to find answers. Today’s environment is complex: the future is uncertain and the application of available solutions can harm rather than help. This inadequacy of the models to the problem has led to the disappearance of successful organizations.
Tim Elmore, author of The Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership, said, “Uncommon leaders leverage both their vision and their blind spots. We must not fall in love with an idea but fall in love with a problem. If we fall in love with an idea, we can be blindsided by the best idea that comes up later.” You can get people back to work, but you can’t control their level of engagement. The current problem is complex , which means the problem needs to be managed, not solved, and it takes a cautious, experimental approach to getting employees back to work.
#3 Shift from customer-first to people-first: It’s well known that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos leaves an empty chair to represent the voice of customers at the company’s most important meetings. In today’s world you need two chairs, the customer and your employees. Like your customers, your employees are human beings. Howard Schultz, the former CEO and President of Starbucks, said, “We are not in the business of coffee serving people, but in the business of people serving coffee. Simply, treat your employees with the same respect and passion as you would a customer.
Leaders who treat customers like royalty but employees like tools will have a rude awakening. Employees have found their voice, and they’re expressing it through their feet, moving towards or away from employers who don’t recognize their value. Your employees are responsible for the products, services and solutions that delight your customers. Engaged employees make happy and loyal customers. If your employees are not engaged, they will not produce innovative products.
In the post-pandemic workplace, the employee value proposition must be at the center of every business strategy and decision. This means a shift from “employees work for me” to “employees work with me” and “I own employee resources” to “I am a steward of employee resources”. This change will inspire buy-in, not followership. Followers play a subordinate role, while membership is about having the mindset of an owner – being contributors and co-builders of the vision. When your employees become co-owners, the result is increased engagement, innovation, collaboration, execution, and revenue.
#4 Integrate your talent management strategy into every phase of your business: Many organizations maximize their HR partners for recruitment, departure prevention, and employee relations issues. The voice of HR becomes hollow (note-taking, a fly on the wall, or the police) in conversations about strategy, organizational design, and execution. This approach uses a fraction of HR capacity and limits your growth potential. Your HR partners are closest to the pulse of your organization and they can leverage this insight to engage, energize and unleash the power of your talent.
Leaders need to shift their mindset to view their HR partners as critical to their business success (aligning talent and business strategy). Equip your HR partners by integrating them into strategy, execution, critical processes and projects that deepen their business acumen to maximize your return on investment. HR partners are your organization’s competitive advantage in the war for talent and the creation of great places to work. If people are your organization’s greatest assets, your HR partners are invaluable members of your team on your executive table.
#5 Change your leadership operating model: With the shift to digitalization, small businesses are struggling to keep up with insatiable consumer appetites and technological changes. The costs associated with bigger, better, newer and faster software and hardware were a burden. The X-as-a-service (XaaS) model (where X = platform, software, infrastructure, etc.) establishes itself in these environments as an intangible value for customers while reducing the total cost of ownership by providing subscription-based technology. It helps business owners meet the needs of their customers by accessing the latest technologies while maintaining a low CapEx.
The heart of the XaaS model is to put the needs of your customers first. Likewise, your leadership operating model must evolve with the current environment. As we move forward in the post-pandemic world, organizations will thrive or become stale depending on the leadership changes that adapt to this new normal. What if your organization’s Leadership-as-a-service (LaaS) model was all about making it easier for your employees to express their highest potential individually and collectively? The workplace then becomes any place of value creation. This would mean creating purpose-driven cultures where employees find meaning in their work, make their greatest contributions, and deepen relationships. The LaaS model would increase work flexibility, productivity, well-being, employee satisfaction and engagement. What changes do you need to make to engage, energize and unleash your best talent in the unfamiliar post-pandemic world?
Closing: The return to work generates mixed feelings among employees. There is no playbook for successfully bringing employees back to the office. Giving mandates is not the way to influence your employees to give the best of themselves. With 70% of employees demanding meaningful work, there is less emphasis on finding dream jobs. Instead, employees want to work with leaders who foster cultures that allow them to pursue and live the life of their dreams. Today’s challenges require curious leaders to see today’s complex environment as a gift and an opportunity to reflect, re-imagine and change the world.