As we begin to reimagine the paradigm of leadership, I would be remiss not to recognize the fantastic, well-intended people who have worked tirelessly throughout their careers. Their strategy, decisions, and thoughtfulness have brought us to this fascinating point in history: the beginning of the post-digital economy. Thank you for your leadership, sacrifice, and experience. It is my sincere hope that you consider the challenge I am about to outline, and rise to the challenge of modern leadership. Your experience is invaluable. Despite the past success, the skills methods, and mindsets that have bought us to this point are not suited for the digital-first economy. We are at the threshold of an age that will belong to the organizations that can adapt the fastest, and to the people who can learn emerging skills quickly, and also focus intensely on complicated work. If we cannot master adaptive strategy, servant leadership, decentralized decision making, guidance-by-guardrail, and a technology-first perspective, at best, leaders will find themselves rapidly unemployed. At worst, we will face an economic landscape dominated by tech unicorns with every person working for one of a few trillionaires (which is also the case for Business Agility.) The time to change is now. We must embrace Leadership-as-a-Service.
How We Got Here. The foundations of most management philosophy can trace their roots to the concept of Taylorism. The idea of scientific management was born in the industrial age. It created an “us” and “them” culture where management and the well-educated established strategy and formed ideas that the working class then executed. Management held the information, tasked work to the doers, and then reviewed results. The people doing the work were motivated through fear tactics and treated as interchangeable cogs in the manufacturing mechanism. Jack Welch famously evolved this theory in the ’80s and ’90’s at GE. Though Welch was able to successfully scale the core tenets of the fundamental doctrine of Scientific Management for a modern manufacturing age, many of the toxic leadership patterns were able to thrive. The world has changed, and the relationship between leadership and the doers has lagged.
Why Change is needed. In 2020 we have entered a new age. From the industrial age to the information age, to the post-digital age, the world has evolved at a pace that will only increase exponentially for the foreseeable future. We started the economic revolution through the use of tools and machines to help people do work more efficiently. In stark contrast, we have evolved to a point where robots are autonomous, and AI is assisting humans in making decisions at lightning speed. Considering these dramatically different pictures, one can begin to understand that it is much more than just how humans interact with technology that has changed. The real work that we do is now also quite different. We must master the ability to focus and do deep technical work. Consider the “The GE Way” and the organization’s meteoric rise in the mid-’90s. Leveraging the annual layoff, GE removed the bottom 10% of performers from the team. Though the layoff tool caused many toxic behaviors to emerge, it supported the organization’s profit motive. Consider, for example, a person responsible for installing a brake mechanism on a train. If this person were a little afraid of losing his or her job, the person would work faster to outperform their colleagues and meet/beat quota. They would work hard enough to never be in the bottom 10%. If we consider the simple mechanism of a mechanical brake on a train, comparatively speaking, any defects that result from the rapid pace of manufacturing would be caught and corrected in QA.
Designing engineers knew their locomotives inside and out. They were the experts. The builders had a healthy fear of management that drove compliance and performance, without sacrificing safety or quality. The GE Way worked. Contrast the GE locomotive of 1990 to the products and work-types of today. Consider technologies such as self-driving cars and large cyber-physical systems like an MRI. Not only is it impossible for any single engineer or manager to understand either system in its entirety, but it is also impossible to assure absolute quality within a small group. Quality must be the responsibility of each person in the value stream. Ask yourself: would you trust a self-driving car whose quality was the responsibility of a select few? Would you trust a self-driving vehicle whose builders were continually working under a constant state of fear? I would not.
What it looks like Though we could dive deep into the methods and mindsets required to build highly complex systems that are safe, compliant, and awesome, that is a different conversation for a different time. What I want to focus on now is what we need from leadership and the new management paradigm. Executives are Responsible for Vision, Strategy, and the Network Based on the teachings of the industrial age, we have done a disservice in education to most people in senior leadership roles today. We have trained them to believe that there is only one correct way to solve a problem, we have developed them to think that they must be absolute experts in their domain, and ingrained in them the idea that they must take control and create followers. All of these ideas are entirely wrong in a post-digital age. The role of an Executive leader is not to be involved in the detailed day-to-day operations of their organization, aka micromanagement. The role of an Executive is to establish a clear vision and influence their organization to around that idea. Executives are responsible for absolute organizational clarity. Too often, I consult in organizations whose Executives are completely disconnected from the people they lead. If your people have not seen you or heard from you in the last week or two, you’re failing.If your people cannot clearly articulate what they’re working toward, you’re failing.If you are spending your entire day in detailed meetings, you’re failing. What we expect from executives is that they are focused on the future, continually looking out for threats to our business or opportunities in the market, and relentlessly evolving the strategy (without mercy or guilt) to protect our business and exploit the opportunity. Further, Executives should constantly be investing in the organizational network, building strong relationships, sharing ideas, and elevating us all as one team. Instead of being selfishly focused on how to beat their peers to achieve the next promotion, they must focus on paths to help the entire organization win. It must always be about US, never about YOU.
The Role of Management. As we consider the role of line-leadership and how it relates to the majority of people doing work, the people no longer need you to tell them what you do. It is highly unlikely that if you have been removed from the day-to-day work for more than a few months that you even know what it is the people are supposed to do. The world is changing that fast. With that said, the role of management is still vastly important, though dramatically different. In a world where teams own solutions and processes, we no longer need the manager to be a signature-gate, nor do we need management to represent the “single throat to choke.” The teams of people who are doing the work are best suited to make tactical decisions, collaborate to solve dependencies and problems and to negotiate priority with their customers. What we do need are people to look out for the individuals on the team. People who can help others plan and accomplish personal goals, even as the individual team members are focused on being high-performing members of a team and delivering deep, technical work. Enter management as a service. The Mentor / Mentee Relationship In most instances, the construct of a rigid reporting structure is no longer needed. Aligning people to managers based on functional skill only slows us down. Instead, what we need is the opportunity for our people to align themselves with people who they align with in terms of personality, developmental goals, and career aspirations. The individual should self-select a person at a higher career level to align in the pursuit of these goals. Though we may mandate that each employee have a mentor, or “Career Counselor,” we do not prescribe who that relationship is with (though logic may suggest that the alignment is with a more experienced person.) Once the mentor and mentee have agreed to enter a relationship, it will be up to them to establish working agreements and objectives. The mentor will help the mentee identify strengths and opportunities, a development plan, work through and issues that arise, and leverage their network to support the mentee to achieve their goals. Through this relationship, the mentee will receive continuous, unbiased, and safe feedback. The mentor should be viewed as a trusted advisor, as opposed to the gatekeeper of one’s career. With this relationship in place, teammates receive the right mentoring and development at the right time. When either party outgrows the relationship, it may be terminated, and a new mentor may be selected.
Conclusion The notion of an evolving leadership role, new types of work, and the need to continually develop people is not new. Though in many instances, HR policy is lagging far behind the trend. The good news is that leaders do not need to wait for policy to change before shifting their behavior. By embracing the ideas of servant leadership and decentralized decision-making, you can immediately begin making a shift within your sphere of influence. Ask yourself not, “how would that ever work here?” but, “how can I start embracing the new leadership contract today?” The answer will be a little different for each of us, but starting immediately with small steps will begin putting our teams and our organizations in a better place to win in a post-digital world.
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