Social and economic circumstances in today’s business environment have redefined what it takes to lead and who is considered a leader. These often opposing forces are disrupting organizations at all levels and are challenging the established roles, responsibilities and competencies leaders require.
Empowered by technology, employees have changed the traditional corporate workflow. Now individuals are free to structure their work around their lives rather than the other way around. According to the 2011 “Cisco Connected World Technology Report,” 56 percent of workers feel most productive away from their office. While three out of 10 college students view working remotely as a right rather than a privilege, this newfound freedom may not really be free. Trust is earned, not given. If learning leaders ask managers of mobile workers off the record whether they believe their employees are actually working eight hours a day, they will likely get a few blank stares.
The mobile workforce is just one example of a growing gap between workers’ expectations and organizational requirements, and this impacts leadership and leadership development.
Front-line leaders’ competencies are changing. According to the same Cisco study, cyber-security is another growing gap between younger and older workers. Three out of five young professionals surveyed claimed they do not consider themselves responsible for protecting corporate information and devices. Front-line leaders are caught in the middle of this growing divide and will need skills and support to reconcile the imbalance.
Social media also may have a role in driving a wedge between the manager and his or her team. Though it has not necessarily found a home in corporate boardrooms, social media is influencing how workers think about involvement. Social technologies have given the individual a voice, allowing thoughts and ideas to flow without qualification or restriction. In the traditional workplace, opinions were tapered, but the expectations of social-savvy workers may not be. Front-line leaders will be asked to balance the competing expectations of their teams and the business. Learning leaders have to equip them to meet the challenge, and this is central to the competency discussion moving forward.
Use collaboration to align team expectations and organizational requirements. Coaching and collaboration are key tools to engage social-savvy workers, according to Hallie Janssen, CEO of Anvil Media, a social media marketing firm.
“Leading social-savvy workers is about creating appropriate expectations and establishing boundaries,” she said. “Front-line leaders need to help employees translate their expectations from their online interactions into the workplace.”
Janssen recommends that managers use the collaborative process to help workers understand their span of credibility and get to the right result. “Validation in the social media world occurs through the recognition of peers. A blog post, for example, is validated when it is shared, liked or retweeted.” In social media, interactions and opinions are shaped through the informal peer-review process. Janssen suggests using the same technique at work to engage ideas, validate opinions and vet solutions.
Use focused response to meet market demands. Changing social expectations, however, is not confined to workers; expectations extend to the marketplace as well. Consumers are at home and at work, and they expect immediate, direct and appropriate responses to their needs.
The market is engaged in dialogue. Customers and would-be buyers have infinite opportunity to rate products and services, blog their opinions or seek advice from peers as they engage in the buying process. Consequently, market expectations are growing, and customer-facing teams and their managers must be prepared to respond.
So how do organizations cultivate front-line leaders who can meet expectations? The answer lies in the timing and training, according to Sharon Daniels, CEO of AchieveGlobal, a leadership, sales and service development firm.
“The key for highly effective sales and service associates is to have them uncover and meet customers’ needs at crucial defining moments, the times when a current customer or prospective buyer has the opportunity to judge an organization,” Daniels said. “Activities that lead to successful service outcomes involve both strategy and skills that add value at every defining moment. This takes a focus on leadership.”
Daniels said that front-line leaders should be developed through coaching and training programs that elevate skills from transaction-based client interactions to experience-focused service.
Informal leaders are important. Just as prevailing social forces have expanded the expectations for both worker and customer, the harsh economic realities of scarcity may make them equal. Time will tell whether the worst has passed, but either way it is unlikely that corporate coffers will open anytime soon. Many leaders are just getting comfortable with the new economic reality and starting to understand how it affects the organization and how they need to adapt their business strategy accordingly.
Layers tend to fall off of organization charts during lean times. That affects how work gets done and how teams are managed. For instance, managers will have a greater span of control, and consequently, so do those beneath them. Informal leaders, who lack the title but shoulder the responsibility, spring up to meet the challenge, but they may not be prepared. Since they lead by default rather than selection, informal leaders are often overlooked and don’t receive training and coaching commensurate with their responsibilities. Skills training in business acumen, problem-solving and negotiation as well as learning to work and communicate in a matrix environment are recommended to ensure informal leaders can face, and meet, challenges.
“We should avoid the inevitable trial-by-fire and understand their strengths, weaknesses and career goals before we dump authority on them,” said Maggie Walsh, vice president of leadership practice at The Forum Corp., a learning and strategic business firm.
“The ability of an individual to step up and take on the characteristics of a leader is not merely an issue of will and skill; success depends on the commitment of their manager,” she said. “Managers need to coach informal leaders through the process. They need to be clear about expectations, let them know that they don’t have to be perfect, and most importantly guide them through any performance challenges they might encounter.”
In flattened organizational structures, roles and responsibilities tend to overlap as resources are load-balanced and matrix teams emerge. Walsh said communication is the key to avoid duplication of work and the friction that occurs when responsibilities blur.
“Managers must help formal and informal leaders understand how to communicate more effectively in a matrix environment,” she said. “Peers need to know how to contract with colleagues to clearly establish and communicate the alignment of terms, roles and responsibilities, and decision rights. Ambiguity creates friction and so formal, as well as informal, leaders need to invest in communication early and often.”
Commit senior management to efficiency. “When resources and work don’t reconcile, then something has got to give,” said J. LeRoy Ward, executive vice president of product strategy and management at ESI International, a project-focused training organization (Editor’s note: The author works for ESI International). Ward said efficient business processes and strong project and portfolio methodology are good places for senior managers to start.
“With limited resources, business leaders cannot afford to continue performing the same functions in the same way if they are going to survive in an environment of scarcity,” he said. “They must be able to discern what is core to the needs of the business, what is secondary and what is non-essential, then redesign functional responsibilities and business processes accordingly.”
A focus on efficiency and steady-state processes is important — status quo does not tend to advance the organization. As marketplace complexity grows due to globalization and highly integrated solutions, today’s organizations are increasingly propelled forward by projects. “Research for a new product, development of a game-changing software application or construction of enabling infrastructure all require projects to make them happen, and business leaders have an important role to play,” Ward said.
Project sponsorship and portfolio management are two of the primary functions senior managers fulfill in the process, according to Ward. “As a project sponsor, leaders ensure that their projects are delivering on their stated objectives, and that project management best practices are being utilized from project planning to project closeout. As portfolio managers, senior leaders rank and prioritize projects based on the firm’s objectives and then ensure that resources are allocated accordingly.” Therefore, understanding and utilizing best practices in these areas is a critical competency for senior managers in today’s environment.
The L&D Response
Leaders at all levels are walking a thin line as they struggle to balance employees’ and customers’ growing expectations with the realities of constricted resources. Many of these challenges are not new to the organization, but they are often new to the leaders facing them. Learning and development organizations will play a critical role in supporting all levels of management as roles, responsibilities and competency requirements shift to meet these evolving challenges. L&D leaders need to assess their workforces more often and adapt their learning and development strategies to meet the changing requirements.
Front-line leaders are caught in the middle of competing expectations and need strong business acumen, communication skills and a collaborative mindset to understand organizational goals, communicate effectively with their teams and navigate expectations to reach desired business outcomes. Increasing market demands mean that client-facing teams and their front-line leaders will need to be situationally aware and capable of uncovering and meeting customer needs at the critical points of impact.
Informal leaders perhaps represent the greatest opportunity for L&D engagement. They often go unrecognized and are subjected to trial-by-fire development. Given their neglect and their growing importance in the organization, many will require foundational leadership development, a better understanding of how to communicate in a matrix environment and a broader understanding of the business.
Out of necessity, senior leaders are recommitting themselves to efficiency, and in many cases are revisiting their skill sets. Though leaders at this level tend to have strong business acumen and communication skills, many lack some of the higher-function competencies in process improvement, systems thinking and project and portfolio management. These areas represent a great opportunity for the L&D organization to re-engage with its senior leadership.
Mark Bashrum is vice president of corporate marketing and strategic intelligence at ESI International. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.