A Workforce Awakening Drives the Next Act for Business Leadership
Why do we work?
On the most fundamental level, the answer is pretty simple: Most of us work to earn the income necessary to provide for ourselves, our families, and to protect our futures. But the reality is that, for many of us, work is a big part of our personal identities, giving us purpose, direction, and a source of intellectual challenge and self actualization.
Americans, in particular, are a work obsessed culture. On average, full time U.S. employees work 47 hours per week, more than any other country in the world, including Japan, a country long associated with extreme work hours; and Americans take considerably less vacation time.
Before the pandemic, the grind was largely manageable with some variations in routine: a commute to and from the office, in-person meetings and work events, and travel to different locales. But when the rhythm was interrupted, for many, it was replaced with a colorless monotony. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, blursday … for some, it became a bit too much.
A workforce awakening
Enter the “Great Resignation.” Recently published data by Gallup show that 48% of the working population in the United States is actively considering a job change. For some, taking stock is a reflection of already high pressure jobs grown worse by the pandemic. For others, it’s simply a result of added time and space to reconsider sources of fulfillment and happiness.
While the need to work remains unchanged for the vast majority of people, workers now recognize that they have choice—and power. The side-effect of mass resignation is a hiring surge, occurring against the backdrop of contracting labor markets. This has created a substantial lift in marketability for skilled workers, a growing recognition of their own personal agency, and a wholesale shift in the balance of power between employers and employees.
Many employees now have different expectations about how, where and why they work—they want flexibility, fulfillment, meaning, and alignment with their values.
And work itself is changing—how it’s done, when it’s done, and by whom. There’s a growing recognition of the thing that should have always been patently obvious: Employees represent the largest single expense in any operating budget and the single most important lever for driving change, innovation, and business advantage.
All of this has drawn attention to what it means to be a leader at this moment in time.
Outmoded management models
Since the advent of modern management, there’s been no shortage of parodies of the various offenses of leadership cluelessness, particularly in the middle-management ranks. From the pointy-haired Dilbert boss to Michael Scott of The Office and the infamous Bill of Office Space with his protruding coffee mug, the caricatures range from harmlessly inept to truly venal.
We can’t help but see certain truths in the depictions because, while they’re obviously fictional, a caricature is nothing more than an exaggeration of the truth. We know these managers.
On some level, this is what we’ve come to expect. There’s been a certain built-in assumption that work brings with it various frustrations of politics, micromanagement, and inequity. My father used to say that if work was supposed to be fun, they wouldn’t have called it work. A certain low-grade suffering, he suggested, is simply part of the bargain.
Call it the psychic cost of professional ambition.
Personally, I’ve always rejected the tradeoff. We spend roughly one-third of our time on earth at work, and much more than that when you consider that a good portion of our non-working time is spent asleep. That’s roughly 100,000 hours of an average lifetime invested in earning a living.
I’m thinking it ought to be fulfilling.
I’m hardly alone in this recognition, which is why managers and leaders need to take stock themselves because the old way of doing things is simply no longer sufficient. In fact, managers are often part of the problem.
A brief history of management
It’s worth considering how we got here. The Industrial Revolution brought standardization to work to accommodate scaled production. It also led to a certain commodification of labor itself: similarly-abled men (largely men at the time) were commissioned to perform the same functions to keep production flowing. All of this work needed to be looked after by a production foreman.
The war-time invention of command-and-control authority further centralized leadership and hardened the distance between management and workers. This was (and continues to be) a highly effective model for producing results under pressure and duress, but it did little to allow for self expression, fulfillment, and other innate human impulses associated with work. Humans, after all, are not robots, and not every work circumstance is equivalent to a war-time situation.
Next came the Information Age and the rise of knowledge work, which shattered the notion of centralized command and control management structures. Work was more creative and intellectual, and the requirement to perform it in one physical location was dramatically reduced.
Which brings us to the present day and the disruption of the pandemic. Suddenly, all knowledge work was remote and distributed. While this created added stress for a lot of people, for others, it was an existential relief: they had flexibility and control over how, when, and where they worked—and they had the time and space to contemplate why they work in the first place.
New rules for leadership
Jack Welch famously warned that when the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near. He was referring to the market forces of disruption for companies that miss certain shifts, but the warning should also apply to managers.
I’ve reflected on the characteristics and qualities of the best leaders I’ve worked for over the course of my 25-year career. These managers were not pushovers or softies who gave me everything I wanted or invested in protecting my ego. They were fair, but firm; direct, but kind.
If I were to reduce these qualities to an ideal manager archetype, it would reflect this duality:
They trust you to get the job done … but they also hold you accountable.
They respect your capability … but they also help you grow.
They were people who seemed to know exactly how and when to intervene. They gave feedback early and often and applied enough of themselves to ensure that we achieved the objective, but never so much as to undermine my role. In effect, they were able to manage holistically, optimizing for the business outcome, first and foremost, but also for the person, too.
Learning to sense
There’s a scene in the movie Forgetting Sarah Marshall where Kunu, the inept surf instructor played by a brilliant Paul Rudd, tries to teach his student how to stand up on a surfboard.
“You’re doing too much,” he says.”Try less.”
The scene devolves into a series of absurd directions—Do less. No, do more than that—that is far from useful, but at the same time about as precise as one can expect when describing what it takes to find that subtle, nuanced balance of standing up on a surfboard for the first time.
The same can be said for how we manage people and lead teams.
Some managers do too much. They’re heavy handed and overbearing. They’re control freaks who apply too much of themselves to every situation.
Some managers are far too removed, letting teams and situations run wild.
But both types of managers are reacting to the same limitation of the role: Not enough information. They lack the data to know where and when to intervene, so they end up doing too little or too much.
Arming managers with the right data
In managing small teams, managers can probably get by on gut feel, but instinct alone doesn’t scale as teams grow in size and complexity.
This data should reflect two equally important orientations: one focuses on what the manager needs to deliver business outcomes; the other focuses on what the employee needs/wants/expects for themselves.
Old-school managers may have a viscerally negative reaction to this second category, dismissing it as secondary or “soft.” But, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that everything in business is about people—and people are complex. We should not treat them as the commodified inputs in a mechanized production process or soldiers in a war-time campaign.
There’s an important interdependence between these two views of the business. The best employees actually want to be held accountable, provided that this accountability is fair and fact based. For many, purpose is derived from knowing that their individual and collective efforts are positively impacting an outcome for the organization in a way that can be measured and proven.
But at the same time, focusing exclusively on outcomes—using data to squeeze the next incremental drop of juice out of the lemon, so to speak—will negatively impact individual and team performance over time and will likely exacerbate the resignations companies want to stem.
Once managers are equipped with holistic and reliable data and insights, they’re better able to sense where and when to intervene. And they also have the ability to test different scenarios so they can understand the business impacts of different people scenarios.
- Will I have enough headcount to meet our revenue or production goals next quarter?
- Which of my highest performers am I likely to lose? What can I do about it?
- Where and when should I hire to de-risk next year’s business plan?
- What team composition and/or behaviors result in the best business outcomes?
- Where do I have skills on my teams that are underutilized?
- Am I making fair, equitable and effective merit increases and promotion decisions?
The next act for leadership
Many of us like to say that the future of work has arrived. It’s a bit of a platitude, of course, but no less true for it. The pandemic has accelerated a change that was already very much in motion, upending previous notions about how, where, when, and even why work gets done.
You simply can’t put that genie back into the bottle.
This has profound implications for how we manage and lead people and teams.
In business, the customer has been our collective obsession for the last 25 years. That’s no less true today, but I’m convinced that the next 25 years will be about employees–acquiring them, retaining them, and maximizing their contribution to creation of business advantage and enterprise value. Because without your employees, your business is nothing.
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