Most leaders today are facing a level of uncertainty in the world, and shift in workplace dynamics, that haven’t been seen before. Some of the younger leaders might not have any experience leading through an era of great uncertainty. After all, a leader younger than 50, might have been in the workforce during the 2008 economic crash, but almost certainly wasn’t in a high-level decision-making role. Add to that the surge in hybrid work arrangements and the huge shifts in worker expectations and challenges facing leaders today look nothing like what their predecessors faced. And yet, leaders who miss the mark as they try to manage through such immense change are facing serious repercussions, from brand implications in the market, to personal professional blowback.
How do leaders manage in today’s extremely challenging environment?
Know your employee. While ‘know your customer’ may be the security priority, the business priority today is understanding the workforce. This doesn’t mean that leaders shouldn’t set policies and goals and articulate strategies. But it does mean that today’s employee will not hesitate to push back if they feel unheard. They may set limits about things like how often they’ll come into the office – a boundary unheard of just four years ago. And while the market has cooled, the most talented employees – and therefore the ones companies value most – are still willing to abandon an employer for one that is more in line with their preferences. Therefore leaders must know who their employees are, where they are, what they want and how to communicate to them.
Recent stories about Farmer’s Insurance remote work policy are an example of how insufficient diligence can create more headaches. After announcing that employees were required to come back into the office, employees all but revolted. In part, this was due to less than optimal research by leadership into where employees were. Many had relocated during the pandemic (and the two years since) where fully remote work has been permitted. Now settled anywhere and everywhere, some employees were many miles from a Farmer’s office. According to the Wall Street Journal, thousands logged complaints and some leaders even questioned the CEO’s competency
It’s not just the message. It’s how you say it. I have discussed before how communication is one of the most valuable skill sets today. No matter how appropriate the sentiment, the deliverty will make or break how it is perceived. For example, the headline of this Fortune article sounds definitive, when Morgan Stanley’s CEO said ‘returning to work is not an employee choice.’ Sounds pretty clear, no? However, what is interesting is that the article went on to quote that same CEO as acknowledging that not every employee will need to be in the office. Both things can be true, of course, but the reality is likely that sizeable pushback meant the message had to be massaged. That isn’t to say that CEOs are wrong to want employers back in the office. But it won’t land well with workers to hear they have no say. And ultimately, most employers will need to not only make good decisions, but message them well also.
The workforce has changed. So has the workplace. Leaders must change, too.
On the one hand, leadership teams are still expected to establish the culture, serve as visionaries and articulate strategy. But how they do these things is the new challenge. Employees are vocal and have a platform via social media to project those voices. Even those who wish to come back to the office may have different priorities of why they are at work and what they want to accomplish. While none of this can be easily resolved quickly or easily, it does have to be part of the new responsibilities of leadership today.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.