How will leadership evolve in the “new normal”? What does “corporate culture” mean now and how can leaders create positive ones? How can leaders maximize the potential and promise of all team members?
We explored these questions and more in a wide ranging interview with Shira Stember, a Senior Vice President of Brand Innovation at a Fortune 50 company. (Connect with her on LinkedIn here)
Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
When it comes to the future of work in the "new normal", what do you think are some key themes and urgent challenges of leadership over the next five years?
None of us are good at predicting the future. That’s been clearly demonstrated by our experience this past year.
One big theme is focusing on individuals and how empathy can put us in a better place as people, leaders, and organizations. I’m thinking about how we can try to kindly change the world? How can we use our forces for good? How can we provide equal opportunity in the workplace?
Another is how can we adapt quickly and always anticipate change? The pandemic accelerated trends that were already in the environment. How can we more quickly recognize trends and adapt to meet the change?
Finally, we need to stay attuned to the employee experience. How can we make sure that we’re showing empathy and humanity, not just toward our customers and clients, but also to our colleagues? How can we maintain a human touch in a digital world? What does it mean to have a “strong” internal culture when a portion of our employee population is working virtually?
What are some of the best ways to always be ready for change and to adapt when necessary?
It’s really about transparency, especially with communication. If everybody is up to speed and in the know, shocks from rapid change will be less severe within the organization. We should aspire to overly communicate and be transparent about the current situation. In this way, members of the organization will be aware of the tools and secret weapons already in place to adjust to changes.
What are some ways leaders can be more transparent?
Ultimately, it’s sharing what’s working and not working. It’s building a culture based on trust. Listen to the voices of the people around you to make sure that you’re capturing ideas from all sides, ensuring that it’s not just top-down.
Leadership is about empowering people to become leaders in their own right. It’s about creating a psychological safety net within a team so that people truly feel comfortable saying, “this is working,” “this is not working,” “here’s some honest feedback”, etc.
You talk about how building a brand culture of innovation fuels results and empowers colleagues. How can leaders do this, especially while everyone is working remotely?
We know that companies with strong corporate cultures and high employee engagement are outpacing their peers.
Research has shown that 50% of remote workers are regularly excluded from important meetings or brainstorming sessions. And 57% of employees say their work performance would improve if they understood their company’s direction or strategy more thoroughly. This comes back to the transparency piece.
There’s a balance of needing to manage Zoom fatigue and increased time spent in meetings with the need to keep people informed and engaged.
One way to do that is by simply recognizing the work people are doing – showing appreciation throughout a project lifespan, recognizing small wins and big wins. You’re encouraging people and increasing the lines of communication.
What does innovation mean to you?
It’s asking questions and changing behaviors – doing things differently and assessing whether or not it’s working. Within our constraints, how can we think differently about the tools we have at our disposal?
If you can do a little each day to improve and change and ask more efficient questions, that, to me, is innovation.
Ideally, you’re going to have a team environment, where you’re comfortable saying “I don’t think this is working, these are the other directions we can go.” Being able to honestly share that information in real time as it happens will prevent bigger issues down the line.
If you’re not experiencing failures, you’re not really pushing far enough. You won’t really know what could have been.
How can leaders in large, established organizations be innovative and try new things? How can they say, “We don’t have to do things the way we’ve been doing them for the past 30 years?”
It’s being able to listen to people around you and build an inclusive culture. Thinking differently about leadership feels like the entry point to how you would make change within a large organization.
It’s breaking it down into smaller, bite-sized pieces. It doesn’t have to be this huge impact from the jump. If everybody were to shift their focus a little bit, change and results will compound over time.
How are traditional hierarchies changing? How are individuals' relationships to these structures changing?
There’s a confidence that needs to be built within individuals – and an access to leaders. If leaders are transparent and have open lines of communication, you have access to their point of view. This is the breakdown of the hierarchy – not staying in your hierarchical lane and not just talking to the people you report to.
The best leaders also recognize that there are other points of view that they need to take into consideration to bring the best possible outcome.
What do you say to people who argue that, if you chip away at the hierarchy, you chip away at accountability? If everyone has their hands in everything, no one really owns anything and no one is responsible for producing results?
There’s definitely a point of diminishing returns. It’s more about having communication, transparency, and empowerment be part of your practice – wanting to share, contribute, and bring in diverse perspectives. It doesn’t mean that, if you work in an organization with 200,000 employees, you have to talk to all of them to make a decision. There’s a point in which it doesn’t work anymore. It’s really just trying to expand beyond your current communication channels to reach beyond where you are.
Even in society at large, the more you are engaged with your community, the more you feel a part of it. The more you feel like you own a part of it, because you’re helping to build it.
You're a big proponent of "holocracy," systems where employees have autonomy to make decisions in a flat organizational structure. Why are you a champion of this idea?
The holocracy is employee empowerment. It’s a much flatter organizational structure, leading to more productive, creative, and transparent practices. Organizations that really allow employees to do what they feel is right create more meaningful work, which results in greater employee satisfaction and retention. The holocracy is about building a team that has confidence and feels comfortable speaking on different topics.
How do you use technology to be a better leader? How should leaders be preparing themselves to make sure employees thrive in a hypertechnological future?
I think of technology as an enabler to support your area of focus – a tool to create better experiences. It’s not about automating jobs. It’s about leveraging technology to automate tasks. If I don’t have to physically push this red button and I can use technology to automatically activate the same result, great, now I can do something more efficiently and contribute more effort somewhere else.
In terms of a leader’s perspective, it’s really about providing access to digital learning modules. How can we make sure everybody has insights on emerging technologies? Are there technologies I can use to support my area of focus?
From an upskilling perspective, it’s needing to build your capacity to work across a lot of different digital platforms. Leaders can constantly ask themselves, “What skills do I have? What skills do I need to acquire? How will that then help me figure out where to go next?”
Building digital fluency skills, even to just be able to communicate with tech partners – being able to speak the language – is a huge opportunity. Being able to use the right language to ensure you’re properly communicating is important.
Given all these different skills, do you think the role of leaders to do all of these things and to be all of these things is too much? Do you see that changing or evolving?
I would hope that every leader thinks along the lines of playing a long game. Your leadership qualities, as you develop them, should be applicable whether you’re President of the United States or a small business owner. It’s leading by example with empathy and humanity to maintain morale and happiness and encourage contribution to deliver the best possible outcomes.
At LeadersAtlas, we believe everyone has a superpower. What's yours?
I think my superpower is being a super connector and, based on those collaborations, being able to think about business ideas that didn’t exist before. I like thinking about which commonalities we can leverage to work collaboratively toward mutually beneficial outcomes and changing people’s perceptions based on those collaborations. That’s what gives me energy.
LeadersAtlas helps leaders and their businesses thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution by tapping into the skills and passions of their teams and customers. Technology makes it easier than ever to get the input from others needed to be a great leader. We design programs that earn attention and build trust to create a shared sense of purpose and progress.
Our solutions help leaders empower their people, improve collaboration, and boost morale to transform their organizations - all through an easy and fun program conducted via Zoom.
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