Disruption/noun: disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity, or process; radical change to an existing industry or market.

The last couple of years have been filled with disruptions to our “normal” way of doing business: the pandemic, staffing shortages, supply chain challenges, shifts in work environments and workforce preferences, and now inflation and other economic challenges.  One only has a sense of what’s “normal” when it is interrupted.  In many ways, leading an organization was, well, “normal” – steady, stable, typical, expected – the last decade or so, certainly since the economic crisis and Great Recession of 2008-09.  However, today – and for the foreseeable future – leading organizations is anything but normal.  In fact, leadership today requires navigating through a constant state of shifting: shifting environmental factors, shifting priorities, shifting challenges and therefore shifting best practices in how leaders lead.

Last week, PEN hosted a webinar featuring four leaders from four different sectors (business, healthcare, government, and education), who explored leadership in the new work environment.  Thanks to Carlee Diggens (Deloitte and chair of MN OD Network), Jenna Kellerman (LeadingAge), Scott Martens (Carlson School, U of M), and Julie Ring (Association of Minnesota Counties) for sharing their collective insights.

It was a packed hour, but I’ll admit that we only scratched the surface in the changes required for today’s leaders.  Given the changes to how and where work gets done, leaders are having to change virtually every aspect of their leadership system, from how they communicate; how they engage and motivate their teams; how they manage performance and ensure accountability; how they recruit and maintain staffing levels; how they ensure organizational resilience and agility; how they maintain and nurture their culture – their core values, their rituals and traditions, their sense of “team” – with ever-shifting work environments, including remote and hybrid workers.  What worked a couple of years ago certainly needs to be modified to work today (and who knows what changes tomorrow will bring).

Here are some of the insights generated from the panel, in no particular order.  If you’re interested in hearing the full one-hour dialogue (it’s worth it), view the video here (no charge as a free member offering).  Some of these insights are quite powerful – so maybe take one or two a day and reflect on your own circumstances, your own leadership system and approaches, and explore what shifts you might make to ensure effectiveness in this new (and ever-shifting) “normal”:

  • The last two years has created a perpetual cycle of “beta mode” – constant change and adaptation – where the goal is progress, not perfection.
  • Leaders need to be comfortable with constantly tweaking and learning (for themselves, their teams, their organizations).
  • Some roles within some organizations simply cannot be performed virtually, which requires leaders to seek and recruit candidates who prefer to work in-person.
  • Leaders should consider a flex-time, flex-space model where they match employee preferences to work requirements in a 2×2 matrix ranging from maximum flexibility or maximum fixedness in how and when work gets done.  A tool like this helps match worker preferences to workplace needs.
  • Organizations now need flexibility in the workplace, rapidly adapting and changing to new requirements and new workforce preferences.
  • Leaders need a lot more empathy these days, recognizing their employees are dealing with intertwined professional and personal lives.
  • With constantly shifting work environments, leaders need to overcommunicate with their teams.
  • Leaders should manage to outcomes, not input – and certainly not the worker (the person): just having a “butt in the seat” is no longer a valid way to manage (I’m not sure it ever was by the way).
  • We need to realize that we’re never going back – we’re never going back to the “way it was.” So embrace the new normal; embrace change.
  • In a constant state of change, it’s no longer enough to listen to the customers you have.  Leaders now need to explore the needs of non-customer prospects to really understand the shifting needs in the marketplace. Try to anticipate needs stay ahead of changing requirements.
  • The features and benefits of what organizations provided its workforce have changed: what used to be a “delighter” is now an expectation – a “must have.” If an organization can’t provide the “must have,” it becomes a dissatisfier for their employees, impacting the ability to recruit and retain workers (and ultimately impacting productivity, engagement, and other outcomes).
  • In some sectors, technology is significantly changing how we communicate and how we do our work, making certain types of organizations more accessible, facilitating better (and broader) dialogue.
  • Leaders need to shift their thinking to more “individualization” – listening, exploring, and understanding the needs of individual workers, rather than lumping everyone together.  Gone are the days that leaders and organizations can provide a one-size-fits-all set of offerings to their employees: we need to segment, understand, and deliver across a varying set of needs, expectations, and circumstances.
  • In today’s environment, leaders need more frequent and more formal communication: some of us no longer have the ability to informally wander the office to communicate, so leaders need to be more thoughtful and deliberate in how they share information and connect with their people.
  • On the other hand, don’t forget informal communications because that builds culture, relationships, and trust.  So find fun, meaningful ways to connect if you are connecting online, such as a weekly 30-minute “meeting” where no one talks about work (to simulate the “water cooler” talk).
  • Speak in headlines, not in punchlines: Our attention spans are shorter, thanks to Zoom and social media, so don’t tell your whole story and then “reveal” the punchline.  Instead, deliver your key point right up front while you have their attention.  Don’t bury the message!
  • In some ways for some people, candor can be easier over video: your time is more limited, you’re not as distracted, and you can be more direct.
  • Find communication platforms that match your team’s needs.  For example, MS Teams saves the chat log (and most others don’t): if asynchronous discussions are important to your team, that may be the better choice.
  • If your team is spread out physically, consider colocations for meetings, where people cluster in different locations to gain the benefit of both in-person (relationships, human connection) and online (efficiency, accessibility).
  • With hybrid workforces, leaders need to know their team and read the situation, being deliberate on how they facilitate discussions so that they elicit engagement from all employees – introverted, extroverted, and all different perspectives.
  • As the saying goes, God gave us two ears and one mouth.  Leaders need to recognize that their employees are stressed and dealing with a lot of challenges.  Listen to them; provide support.
  • Leaders need to model behaviors.  Today, the line between work and personal is blurred, so set and display desired behaviors (such as no emails after a certain time) that encourage and reinforce professional downtime.
  • Leaders should recognize that today’s work environment may be lonely for some (including themselves).  Find ways (and encourage your team) to network and connect.  It’s important for relationships, resilience, connection.
  • Leaders need to lead in such a way as to allow their employees to “lean into” the current work environment.  Give freedom and flexibility for how and when people work.  But also monitor outcomes and ensure accountability.
  • As the work environment continues to shift, leaders need to occasionally evaluate and shift their own leadership methods: what worked yesterday will not work today, and what works today may not work tomorrow.
  • A new trend in managing people is unlimited PTO, allowing employees to take vacation whenever they want (just declaring it first!).  It promotes trust and flexibility.
  • Leaders need to understand the different types of employees – with different needs – they are managing.  One size does not fit all: leaders need to create systems that are flexible enough to accommodate the various needs across their workforce segments.
  • With today’s staffing challenges, leaders need to explore things of value other than just compensation that they can provide employees to make positions more attractive, more valuable.  Examples include: flexible work, purpose, career development and pathways, robust benefits, unlimited PTO, educational investments, and so forth.
  • To fully respond to today’s staffing challenges, leaders need to fully understand the drivers of engagement for their current (and prospective) workers.  Pay is important, but usually not the top driver.
  • Though it may be one of the toughest things a leader does, when faced with a disengaged employee, the best thing to do is help them to leave.  Not only is a disengaged employee a drag on current organizational performance, they are a drag on the rest of the team’s performance.
  • Today’s leaders need courage – they no longer can afford to ignore the difficult issues facing their teams, their organizations.
  • A role of leaders is to create a “psychologically safe” environment for their employees to share, grow, thrive without fear of failure or retribution.
  • Leaders need to pay attention to their team’s energy level.
  • The old reward systems no longer work: leaders must lean into individualization, paying attention to what motivates, inspires, and keeps your high performers engaged.
  • To increase resilience (and effectiveness), realize that most of work today is not a straight line: there will be shifts, changes, “pivots” – go with it, adjust, and navigate!
  • Leaders need to empower their staff and trust their expertise, particularly the front line where the work gets done and the customer is touched. Trust them; enable them.
  • Leaders need to set a vision – establish expectations and what needs to get done, and then manage to the outcome.

Rereading the list, I’m guessing most of those practices would have been valid two or three years ago.  But today and in the future, they’re critical – probably non-negotiable.  I guess my advice is to think about how you lead today and whether your approaches to leadership need to change, given the changes in the work environment.  And then at some point in the future (six months, a year?), reevaluate those leadership approaches again, because no doubt the variables will have changed again!

If you want to watch the panel discussion, view the video here (no charge for members), and if you want to watch a similar panel discussion from back in February (it’s interesting to me how some things have shifted even more the last five months!), view that video here.

Finally, if you’re interest in learning more about how to improve your leadership effectiveness, while actually resolving a real leadership challenge that you are facing, consider attending PEN’s unique Leadership Excellence Challenge series this fall, facilitated by Tammy Krings of The Conversations that Matter. The series is three live, in-person half-day workshops and focuses on proven best practices and emerging leadership tools, explored in a cohort of fellow leaders from different industries.  The goal is to break down leadership barriers and position leaders to take action on their challenges, while improving how they communicate with clarity across their organization or team.  For more information, visit here.  Or attend a preview of it as a one-hour free webinar July 28 at 8:00 CT (information here) or the 90-minute online series kickoff September 13 at 11:30 CT (no obligation to continue, but this session sets the stage for the rest of the series modules; more information here).

But whatever you choose, do something that provides an opportunity for self-reflection on your own leadership effectiveness.  What worked a couple of years ago doesn’t necessarily today, and what works today might not tomorrow.  Now – more than ever – effective leadership is a constantly moving target.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding effective leadership in today’s shifting environment?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network


A Catalyst for Success Since 1987!

Photo credit ATD, Insead Knowledge, Bill Gosling