Much has been written about the recession-induced struggles of employees, as they grapple with escalating workloads and diminishing promises from employers. But employees aren’t the only ones struggling to meet a host of increasing responsibilities and rising expectations in a new economy.
The recession raised the bar for business leaders, who must fend off attacks from tenacious competitors in a battle for market share and survival, while satisfying the burgeoning demands of shareholders and employees. Today’s leaders must foster innovation, take calculated risks, thrive in a 24-7 business climate and accomplish these goals with fewer resources as the stakes rise.
“If you look at the quick ascent of companies like Google and YouTube, it’s obvious that bigger companies have to be nimble just to keep up,” says Paul De Young, Ph.D., senior consultant for talent management and Western U.S. sales leader for Towers Watson. “This revolutionary economic environment requires new leadership skills and competencies. Executives must reinvent themselves if they want to stay on top.”
Smart Business spoke with De Young about the challenges facing today’s business leaders and the need for professional transformation.
How has the recession impacted workers’ expectations of business leaders?
Towers Watson surveyed 22,000 workers to get an in-depth look at their post-recession attitudes. In addition to altering their relationships and basic social contracts with their employers, the Great Recession dramatically changed the way employees view their leaders. They crave connections with emotionally intelligent leaders who are trustworthy and accessible and who demonstrate respect for the well-being of others. Fifty-six percent said they expect leaders to encourage their professional development, while 42 percent expect leaders to successfully manage the company’s financial performance. Unfortunately, the survey results were disturbingly low, with only 50 percent of employees stating that today’s leaders meet those expectations. The study exposes the gaps in leader performance and suggests that many could benefit from a professional makeover.
How can leaders meet these expectations?
Leaders need to step back and take stock of the skills that made them successful while consciously developing new competencies that will lead to future success. Inventory your strengths and development needs by observing the attributes of younger, emerging leaders and reviewing an atlas of the behaviors that demonstrate proficiency with critical leadership competencies. Not all leaders need to undergo radical change; some may fulfill employee expectations by tailoring their behaviors to fit the current business environment. Once you develop a list of the skills you wish to master, executive coaches and increased awareness can help you expand your repertoire of competencies. Remember, many leaders are in the midst of a professional transformation as they attempt to conquer growing responsibilities with fewer resources. The evolutionary process takes time, so don’t be afraid to discuss your journey with managers and employees, because it will increase transparency and encourage others to follow suit.
Are these expectations realistic?
In many ways, employees expect leaders to act like celebrities as well as business gurus. Think Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Eric Schmidt. These leaders have reset the bar because they take the time to Tweet, blog and woo customers by delegating many of their day-to-day responsibilities. These fast-moving companies are also famous for cutting-edge technology and vaulting past the competition, because their leaders think outside the box and are willing to take risks.
Is it possible to thrive in a 24-7 business environment?
Forget about achieving work-life balance, because it is based on a world without the Internet. Leaders need to fully integrate their personal and professional lives in order to operate in today’s 24-7 business environment. Leadership essentials include blended skill sets such as multi-tasking and handling shifting priorities along with the capacity to nurture virtual relationships. One minute, an executive might be having dinner with his or her family, and the next she’s e-mailing, blogging or posting information on the company intranet to bolster employee engagement. The 24-7 phenomenon isn’t temporary, so leaders need to embrace the change and adapt their lifestyles. The best group of people to observe with this skill is working moms. They have mastered this better than anyone else.
What does it take to outhustle the competition?
Executive leaders must develop their direct reports and trust them to make decisions in order to thwart the advances of svelte competitors. Some leaders were still adjusting to the reduction in middle management and leaner organizational structures instituted during the prior recession when the Great Recession hit. Although the compressed configuration was supposed to eliminate bureaucracy and hasten the decision-making process, in reality managers have been wearing many hats, so many lacked the confidence and expertise to meet new customer mandates under extreme adversity. Now that the crisis is waning, executive leaders must loosen the controls so their direct reports can spread their wings. Assume the role of questioner and enabler, rather than restrictor. Courses in innovation and critical thinking can help engender innovation, but at the end of the day executives must be willing to take calculated risks and loosen the reigns if they want to develop their direct reports into future leaders.
Paul De Young, Ph.D., is a senior consultant for talent management and the sales leader for the Western U.S. for Towers Watson. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (562) 234-1669.