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Alicia Blain

Leading a new workforce


Quote:  “You can’t lead without imagination”  ~  Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Imagination is seriously lacking in today’s corporate environment.  We are knee deep in a status quo that no longer serves us and that in many ways, makes us mediocre.  To change that, we need to spark imagination in all our employees.  But first, we must spark it in ourselves as team leaders. To create the spark you need to embrace experimentation.  I’m not talking about creating a department or a committee to look into experimentation.  I mean changing the way you lead your team so that experimentation is always encouraged and rewarded.  When an idea doesn’t work out, it isn’t perceived as failure but as a learning experience that enriches the team and the lesson learned can be utilized to fuel the next experiment.

Experimentation is the final but core concept in the C.A.R.E. System.  It is what ties it all together. In these posts, I have showcased Starbucks and its CIO to illustrate the key principles behind the C.A.R.E. System.  At the very core of Gillett’s success was his innate acceptance or need to experiment. None of the examples would have been possible if Gillett had not embraced experimentation. Let’s recap all the ways he experimented:

  • When he took on more responsibility in the face of daunting IT problems that needed resolution
  • When he went to work at a Starbucks retail store, not knowing what he’d find or how he would do,
  • When he showed the Executive team a live simulation highlighting the shortcomings of their existing POS system
  • When he proposed the new business unit called Digital Ventures,
  • When he chose an entrepreneur to run the new business unit,
  • When he made IT and Marketing equally responsible for the new business unit
  • When he asked employees for their ideas on making IT better,
  • When he let employees select their IT devices,
  • When he applied his knowledge of networks to help spark solutions in Starbuck’s retail business.

All of these examples illustrate that Gillett was open to experimentation. He may not have been comfortable with all of it but he chose not to play it safe.  At some level, he understood that taking risks was critical to Starbuck’s survival and he, as well as his CEO, faced the challenge and came out ahead.  I’m sure that there were ideas that didn’t work out.  In fact, the article highlights one. Apparently, Gillett is a big gamer or lover of video games. Actually,  he’s a guild master in the online video game called World of Warcraft.  That’s a pretty big deal in the gaming community. Instead of playing down that passion, he  set up a meeting between the executive teams of Starbucks and Blizzard, the owners of World of Warcraft so they could look into the possibility of doing business together.  After all, both companies had a huge fan base and Starbucks needed to find ways to engage customers online the way that Blizzard did. 

At the end, the experiment did not end up in a partnership.  But all was not lost.  The experiment sparked new ideas among the Starbucks executives that led to new offerings for their customers.  Embracing a spirit of experimentation almost always sparks the imagination and that leads to more possibilities for innovation.

For companies to be relevant in the future they must make experimentation a core objective for all departments.  It needs to be nurtured, rewarded and imbedded into the corporate culture.  More importantly, it is a pivotal component if we are to transform the way we lead.  Millennials will make up 50% of the global workforce in less than 5 years.  As leaders preparing to pass the baton to the next generation leaders, I believe it is our obligation to embrace change and find new ways to lead.

So you may be wondering what happened to Ben and his direct reports? As I dissected the Starbucks case study, Ben was able to see real world examples of C.A.R.E. in action.  It sparked their curiosity and an eagerness to try new approaches in their organization as Gillett tried to do in his.  Ben, as CIO, made a very important decision that day.  He chose not to play it safe.  He realized the future required new ways of seeing things and new ways of leading.  The Millennials were their new audience not just as employees but as customers. He realized that if transformation was going to happen, it needed to include the Millennials in the workplace.  And he was ready.

I’ll end this series by quoting Seth Godin one last time.  In Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us, Seth writes:

“The safer you play your plans for the future, the riskier it actually is.”

My questions to you are:  How safe are you playing your role as leader? What one thing can you do today to get you slightly uncomfortable? What one thing can you do to get to know a Millennial in your workplace? 

Like me, you’ll find that staying in your comfort zone as a leader is actually riskier than embracing a little discomfort to prepare for the future. Once you step out of your comfort zone and see all the possibilities that it offers, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner…

Quote: “ I don’t think we have any choice.  I think we have an obligation to change the rules, to raise the bar, to play a different game.”   ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Connecting with our employees and customers and adapting our mindset gets us ready to play a different game.  But you also need action and to do that you have to be willing to RESHAPE your organization.  To Reshape is the third module in the C.A.R.E. System. To visualize just how you can begin to do that, let’s go to our Starbucks example.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

Here are 3 examples of actionable steps that Gillett took to reshape his IT team and their reputation.

1.     He forced collaboration between teams.  In the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership, we call this “Letting go of Silos”.  Silos are rampant across corporate America and they are innovation and motivation killers for most employees but especially Millennials.  One of the key Millennial characteristics is their collaborative spirit.  They work best in groups and the more you mix up the group the better. Imagine their surprise when they show up for work and see that business units barely interact with one another and they certainly don’t share and collaborate very much. In his pitch for a new business unit, Gillett forced the collaboration of the IT and Marketing teams.  Talk about silos that don’t normally have much in common.  The new unit was called Digital Ventures and Gillett hired an entrepreneur to run it instead of a corporate type. Now that’s playing a different game.

 2.     He let the employees choose their technology and propose new ideas. At a time when so many IT shops are still fighting the consumerization of IT here is a company that allows their employees to select from a wide assortment of technology, from Macs to PCs to smartphones to get work done. To be completely fair, the article did say that Starbucks modeled their Tech Café after the Apple Store. That brings up a good point.  We should always be scouting the market for techniques that work for others and how they can be customized for our specific organizations.  What I liked the most was that they welcomed feedback from the employees on all things concerning IT.  In the C.A.R.E. System, we call that IT Advocacy.  Millennials are the first generation of workers that actually want more technology than what currently exists in the workplace.  No matter what team they work for, they can be invaluable to an IT Dept.  But IT has to take the first step and request their help and then be open to the suggestions given. As IT Advocates, Millennials can be a wonderful test group for any new product, process, or upgrade that the IT Department is considering. If done properly, IT Advocates can be a great extension of the IT Department.  As IT partners, they also create a great fan base for IT in the company.

3.     Applying expertise from an unrelated field to solve a different problem.  Gillett had little retail experience before working at Starbucks and according to the article he had never worked on the scale of a Starbucks.  But he had worked for companies with big networks like Yahoo. Instead of disregarding that experience, he leveraged it to understand the retail giant and apply that seemingly unrelated experience at Starbucks.  Gillett is quoted in the article as saying:  “[…] big Internet, like Yahoo, had solved a lot of the technical challenges that big retail had yet to solve… If you think of all your stores like nodes on a network, and all your resisters as computers rather than cash registers, you can start to manage and deploy […] like Yahoo would a server farm […]”   Many examples exist in business of how breakthrough ideas and products are discovered when a solution that worked in a completely unrelated field is applied to solve a different problem.

 Sometimes, organizations are too narrow-minded in how they view and value experience.  Perhaps an employee in your team has expertise in solving problems in another field that can be the breakthrough idea you need to solve a problem.  You’ll never leverage that unrelated expertise if you don’t know about it or you don’t support it or you don’t find an outlet to try it out.  Experimentation is the subject of our last post in the series and a pivotal one for transformation to occur.

Quote: “What they needed was a leader to bring the organization to a new audience in a new way.”       ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us.

If you’re not quite sure why Millennials are an organization’s “new audience”, I invite you to read through some of my past blogs to get a thorough understanding of this unfamiliar group.  As leaders, we won’t be able to really reach that new audience unless we are willing to create a new way or at the very least question our existing way to see if it will work going forward.

That’s why it’s so important for us to ADAPT and find a new way so our next generation employees are engaged and productive in our teams.  ADAPT is the second module of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership and it’s an important one because it has to do with a leader’s state of mind. ADAPT is all about mindset and getting comfortable testing your boundaries.

So what specific things can we do to ADAPT our leadership style?  Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for ideas.  As the new CIO, Gillett embraced 3 things that got him out of his comfort zone and ready to ADAPT and find a new way to lead his IT team.

Again, Here’s the link to the Information Week article.

1.     He was curious and courageous. The article quotes Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz as saying that Gillett “had an insatiable curiosity and wasn’t afraid of pursing big, bold ideas.” Curiosity and courage are key components of the C.A.R.E. System.  To change and adapt to a new way of doing things and of leading is not easy.  You are fighting yourself and those in the organization that want to keep the status quo alive.  Without being inherently curious, asking lots of “why do we do it that way” questions and being willing to fight the good fight, it is very difficult to ADAPT and give your new audience – the Millennials – a new way.

 2.    He asked for even more responsibility.  In early 2009, Gillett has been in Starbucks for just one year and realizes he inherited what can only be termed an IT nightmare. At the same time, Starbuck’s new CEO, Howard Schultz,asks the company executives to give him ideas on how to turn the company around. He urges them to think outside their corporate functions. Does Gillett ignore his boss’ request because he legitimately reasons he already has too much on his plate? No. He goes ahead and pitches an idea for Starbucks to make a venture capital investment in a new business unit designed to push the company’s mobile and online strategy.  That was a gutsy move.  Instead of sticking to what he knew and focusing on just that, Gillett saw a rare opportunity to be part of a transformation at Starbucks.  It required him to take on more than he probably could chew at that time. He got out of his comfort zone and adapted his mindset to take on a strategic challenge and he succeeded. According to the article, since creating the new venture “Starbucks has become a retail leader in mobile payments”. By stretching yourself and getting uncomfortable you push yourself to try new things.  Like a muscle, the more you use it, the more comfortable you become letting go of your status quo.

 3.   He instilled an entrepreneurial spirit into IT.  That’s very rare to see.  IT departments in most large organizations these days are all about following the rules, often playing it safe, and saying a lot of NO in the interest of “security”.  In the next post, we will see examples of what Gillett did that went against these typical IT practices.  The examples were possible because he elected to run IT not so much as a corporate business unit but rather as an entrepreneurial venture. They opened themselves up to try new things.  The focus was to address the needs of its customers – both inside and outside the corporate walls. That ultimately showcased IT as an enabler instead of  a cop.

 In today’s super competitive, global marketplace,  organizations that don’t want to fall behind need to be run by leaders that are open to adapting their frame of mind and leadership frameworks to make way for the future. They need to ADAPT and find new ways for their new audience – the Millennials.

Quote“ If you’re not  uncomfortable in your work as a leader, it’s almost certain you’re not reaching your potential as a leader”  ~ Seth Godin in Tribes: We Need YOU to Lead Us

Being uncomfortable is how transformation begins.  When I first started hiring Millennials, I didn’t want to change.  The more they perplexed me, the more I dug my heels in my comfort zone.  It wasn’t until I decided to understand why they perplexed me that the transformation in my leadership style took place and led to the creation of the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership. That led to first seeing the potential Millennials brought to the workplace then tapping it then capitalizing on it.

The first step in doing that is to CONNECT.   Many of us who cut our management teeth in the 20th Century approach leadership like this:  I, leader, have a certain leadership style that you, employee, will need to get comfortable with.  It is not my responsibility to figure you out or adapt my style to meet your needs.  You need to conform to my style and work effectively under that style. 

Really?  Do we really want to lead that way?  Does it work for us?  If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that working for a boss that took the time to know us and spend quality time with us are the ones we liked working for and worked the hardest for.  Now more than ever, making a special connection with each of our employees is not only critical but expected.  The more removed we are from our staff, the less effective they will be and that will reflect back to us.  We also minimize our message and our vision.  We need that direct connection to our teams to spread our message and communicate our goals.

So how can you begin to CONNECT?   Let’s look at the Starbucks case study for real world examples. Here’s the link to the Information Week article. 

As the new CIO for Starbucks, one of the first things Stephen Gillett did was connect with the people in the trenches and with Starbuck’s customers.  How did he do that? He shadowed them by actually working in one of the retail stores. This is one of the key components in the C.A.R.E. System.   As a leader you need to spend time with your target audience whether it’s your employees or your customers.  It’s important for 3 reasons:

  1.  You see firsthand how employees work.  You can observe their thinking process as they complete their tasks.  How is that thought process unique and can you leverage it in other areas or functions in your team?  You also see how they do their tasks.  Are there shortcuts that they are taking and are unaware of that help speed up the work? Can those shortcuts be applied in other areas of your operation? Or perhaps they are missing important steps that require more training?  Is there duplication of work that you were not aware of?  No report or spreadsheet analysis will give you that kind of intelligence.
  2. You see if the process works or doesn’t.  In the case of Gillett, as he worked at a Starbucks store, he quickly realized that the point-of –sale (POS) system was broken.  Even though the Starbucks brass knew the limitations of the system they were more focused on growth strategies and opening stores.  They didn’t realize that the limitations of the POS were contributing to problems in opening new stores.
  3. You are able to make better and more intelligent decisions when prioritizing projects based on your firsthand experiences in the trenches.

If shadowing is effective downstream – working directly with your employees and/or customers, it is equally effective upstream – with your executive team.  After spending time shadowing downstream at a Starbucks store, Gillett decided to bring the same experience upstream, to the executive team. He created a Tech Derby which is really a live simulation of a problem showing the pain points and a proposed solution to the problem. The simulation acted as a shadowing opportunity. Through a large-screen display, the executive team, including the CEO, Howard Schultz, shadowed a barista painfully placing an order in the outdated POS system.  They got to see not just hear about how much time was wasted as the baristas had to translate orders so the POS system could capture them. Then, through a mock up of the proposed replacement system, the executive team was able to shadow the new process to see how much faster and more effective it was. 

According to the article, “When they showed both to Schultz, ‘he just turned around and said, When? And whatever you’re going to tell me, it has to be faster’”.  That’s how effective shadowing is and how powerful the concept of Connecting is to introduce change.

Imagine how connecting with your Millennials or others in your team can give you a bird’s eye view to what’s going on in the trenches.  Imagine how many things you’ll be able to discover, uncover and identify that can be game changers to your team and ultimately your organization.  The days when leaders could run teams by just interacting with their direct reports without a strong connection to their team members are disappearing quickly.  The opportunity for innovation and real transformation lie with the ideas and creativity of those closest to the problems your team faces every day.  You need to connect with them to tap and harness that creativity and find innovative solutions.

What examples do you have that illustrate how you CONNECT with your employees?

Recently, I was conducting a workshop with Ben, the CIO of a mid-size company and his direct reports. The CIO was having trouble holding on to his young workforce.  More than that, he really couldn’t figure them out. He brought me so I could help them understand, engage and retain Millennials, those pesky 20-somethings that are now coming into the workplace in droves. Ben’s situation wasn’t unusual. Millennials in the workplace  and what to do with them is a very hot topic these days and a real pain point for CIOs and other leaders.

In the meeting, shared my personal “Millennial” journey as a Senior VP of IT in a Fortune 500 company and how I went from total aggravation with Millennials to complete amazement at the contributions they could make in the workplace under the right conditions.

I explained to the group that I was able to make this transformation by creating a lab and putting Millennials in the workplace under the microscope to observe them intently and understand what made them tick.  In doing so, I quickly realized that the leadership style and approach I had taken with previous generations of employees were simply not effective with the new breed of 20-somethings.  After many experiments – many that worked and some that failed – a pattern began to emerge that clearly showed me that I needed a different framework to get through to these Millennials and capitalize on their unique perspective.  I ultimately called the new framework the C.A.R.E. System for Next Generation Leadership.  C.A.R.E. stands for Connect, Adapt, Reshape and Experiment.

As I was sharing specific examples of how I began to incorporate C.A.R.E. into my leadership style, Ben, the CIO, raised his hand and asked a great question. 

“Alicia, would it be possible for you to highlight examples of specific steps I can take as a CIO to begin to put your C.A.R.E. System into action. Are there any examples out there of CIOs or organizations that you can point to that can help illustrate the key elements of your C.A.R.E. System.

I couldn’t have asked for a better segue way.  Ben’s question highlights a need we all have to see and drill down on examples that can help us make necessary and oftentimes uncomfortable changes.  The examples help us understand new concepts, demonstrate how the concept was implemented and give us food for thought on how we can incorporate them into our particular work environment.

Ben’s question was refreshing for 2 reasons. The first is that it was a good indicator that he acknowledged that change was necessary.  Unlike many leaders, he didn’t think that holding on to the status quo and old patterns was going to solve the problem.  He was open to trying new things. Secondly, he accepted responsibility for initiating the change and wanted guidance on how to start.

Over the next four posts, I will share with you the real world case study that I used to show Ben and his direct reports how to exemplify how the core concepts of the C.A.R.E. System can be used to effectively lead Millennials in the workplace .

The organization that will be highlighted in the case study is Starbucks and the person spotlighted is Stephen Gillett, its new CIO.

I welcome you to click here to read a recent article in Information Week written by Chris Murphy that spotlights the Starbucks CIO as the Chief of the Year.

 Full disclosure:  I don’t know Stephen Gillett personally other than what I read in the Information Week article and he has never heard about the C.A.R.E. System.  I am using him in the case study because of specific examples of techniques or approaches that were highlighted in the article.  The techniques help me illustrate real world examples of each of the 4 modules in the C.A.R.E. model that I know to be effective when leading next generation workers.

In my next post:  we begin look at the Starbucks case study for techniques on how to Connect – the first module in the C.A.R.E. System

Recently I finished reading Seth Godin’s book, TRIBES: We Need You to Lead Us.  It’s a quick read and I have been recommending it as a must read for corporate leaders as a starting place to challenge our thinking. In each of my posts, I will be quoting from the book to set the tone for us to be open to change.

In Tribes, Seth writes: “And if you insist on playing today’s games by yesterday’s rules, you’re stuck.  Stuck with a stupid strategy.  Because the world has changed.”

Change is a constant and our next generation leaders, the Millennials in the workplace, are counting on us to change and leverage their potential.

If my boss tells me, ‘not now’ one more time, I’m going to scream”.  That was Katie, one of the many Gen Yers in my professional circle.  She was frustrated once again by her boss and his inflexibility in trying something new. “He keeps making excuses about our team’s workload, our time constraints, the budget to shut down any ideas we bring to him”. 

I explained to Katie that “not now” was the leadership code word for “that makes me uncomfortable”.   After observing Millennials for so long, I realize that they come to the workplace with a different microchip imbedded in their DNA.  When that microchip gets activated by such things as: presenting a new idea, recommending a new but untried process, collaborating with people outside your team, the seasoned leader or manager gets another sampling of the unfamiliar and they don’t like the feeling. 

The savvy and astute leaders use that sampling either as a way to test the tried and true or to experiment with something new.  They see the opportunity to do things differently that the Gen Yers are bringing to the workplace and they go with it.  Most leaders just say “Not now. We’re too busy, too understaffed, too [fill in the excuse du jour].”  “Not now” lets them hold on to the past. It lets them ensure continuity of the way they’ve always done things, it provides a safe haven from the unfamiliar. 

To a sharp and eager Gen Yer looking for motivation and a way to stand out, “not now” is like taking a dip in freezing cold ocean water in January.  It takes your breath away but not in a good way.  For 20-somethings like Katie, getting told “not now” repeatedly is a let-down and a HUGE motivation killer.  Why should she continue to bring up ideas when all she’ll get is a lame reason designed to uphold the tried and true.  What ultimately happens with that inflexibility in leadership style is that talented people like Katie either leave or stop caring. They stop trying to bring their unique and much needed perspective into the workplace.  Either way, the organization loses out on capitalizing on her talent. It also loses out on getting comfortable with change.  Can any organization today afford that?  Yet, time and time again you can see many bosses across countless organizations emulating Katie’s boss’ behavior. 

My question is:  how long can we allow “not now” to continue? How long until it hurts the team and the organization?  Holding on to what has worked in the past is a recipe for failure if it’s not constantly being tested or reassessed for its value going forward.  Gen Yers have some great ideas to share in the workplace that test the tried and true.  That should be embraced by leaders of forward looking organizations. Some of the ideas may not work but I can guarantee that everyone will learn and be better off by trying them out. 

By leading the Millennials, I learned that “not now” couldn’t hold a candle to “let’s give it a try”. I just had to get comfortable saying it. I realized that “Not now” fed my fear of the unknown while “let’s give it a try” gave me possibilities.  It was also music to the ears of the Millennials in my team.  It gave them hope that things could change and that their input could make a positive difference at work.

So what about you?  Do you catch yourself saying “not now” a lot at work?  Replace it one time with “Ok. Let’s give it a try” and you’ll see that the world does not fall apart.  Maybe you’ll see your Gen Yers light up with hope instead of mope with disappointment.

“Alicia, I’m up to my eyeballs in work and more keeps getting piled on. The last thing I need is to deal with a bunch of kids that have no clue how things get done at work but want to show me a better way of doing things. If it’s been good enough for us, it’ll be good enough for them, too.” 

Bob was the CIO of a mid-size company and his tirade didn’t end there. It went on for another few minutes as he let out his frustration with managing the Millennials in his team.  As a leadership expert who specializes in the Millennial generation and Next Generation leadership issues, I get to hear similar tirades from clients and in networking events.  This happened to be a networking event and the minute Bob found out what I did, he started spewing.

It’s called F.U.D.  Many years ago, I had a finance professor that used this acronym as he tried to explain market volatility. It stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.  Since then I’ve heard the term used in a variety of contexts and as Bob was talking, it kept flashing through my mind. Bob was locked in the status quo.  Just the mere thought of having to deal with something unfamiliar during such tumultuous times made his head hurt. 

Millennials represent the unfamiliar to Bob and many of today’s leaders and it puts them in FUD mode.  Instead of trying to understand and embrace the Millennials and use the experience as an opportunity to change their thinking [Oh, Nooooo!], these leaders go into what I call the hunker mentality:  they firmly grasp the old, conventional way of leading and seeing things and refuse to open their minds to the possibility of a new way. The more Millennials try to infuse a different perspective into the team or the workplace, the more hunkered down these leaders get in the old ways.

Here’s the problem with the hunker mentality: the more leaders in a company that prescribe to that mentality, the more at risk that company is to being left behind. Instead of seeing the Millennial FUD factor as a bad thing, smart leaders are using it as a wake-up call to find new ways of leading that begin to incorporate the unique perspectives the Millennials bring so they can attract, motivate and engage them going forward.  Let’s not forget that the Millennials are the next generation leaders and the world they will lead is starkly different than the world that created the old, conventional ways. Let’s also not forget that as Baby Boomers, many of us won’t be retiring as planned. So if your strategy was to “get out of dodge” before the massive influx of Millennials hit your workplace,  you may want to re-think that strategy, huh?

So are you in FUD-land?  Go ahead. Take a chance. Acknowledge the FUD factor, get uncomfortable and try new things.  It will ultimately better prepare you  to lead our next generation leaders. Years ago, I was knee deep in FUD as I started hiring Millennials at work. I was determined to figure out why.  I had to learn to get uncomfortable. I had to un-learn some leadership techniques that didn’t work anymore and upgrade some others to work in the 21st Century.  Millennials need us to get uncomfortable so we can help them become the leaders they need to be in the new normal that is just beginning to unfold. They are counting on you to work through your particular FUDs and come out on the other side. The other side is not so bad.  Really…

I know some people may be saying, “Duh. It’s the same thing.  A team is made up of a group of individuals”.  Yes, but do we manage the group or the individuals that make up the group?

I know it’s a subtle point but a leader’s perspective on that point has a palpable impact on whether they can attract and retain their most talented employees in today’s workplace.

The leadership models of the past and the ones most of us have cut our teeth on focused on the one size fits all theory.  That is, each of us has a leadership style that we are either comfortable with or have learned along the way and we apply that style to running our “teams”.   We don’t deviate much away from that style.  Actually, the more consistently we apply it the better since it shows we are treating everyone the same.  But does it actually show that?

I used to think it did.  After all, I was trained and compensated on how consistent my style was.  Everyone in my team knew exactly how I ran things and the subtle message was that they had to conform to that style if they wanted to succeed in my team.  I felt that my consistent, one size fits all style helped me weed out the non-performers, those people that were not , A-players, or at least they weren’t in my mind.

It wasn’t until I started hiring Gen Yers in my team and created a lab to figure them out that I questioned that approach.  I realized that I was leading the masses, the amorphous “TEAM” and not the individuals that made up my team.  By being consistent in my leadership style I was telling the masses how to conform. That gave me the advantage of running a very efficient and productive team. What I didn’t realize is that its side effect was creating sameness instead of variety. Now years ago, a lot could be said for efficiency and productivity and sameness. But as the pace of change increased and continues to do so at breakneck speeds, sameness is a creativity and innovation killer. 

What I discovered as I tried to make sense of Gen Yers  (certainly NOT the same as me)  was that if I wanted my team to be innovative going forward,  my leadership style had to take a more unconventional approach.  Instead of having my “team” conform to my leadership style, I had to understand and capitalize on the richness of skills, attributes and experiences that each person in my team brought with them.  Instead of leading the masses with a one size fits all style, I learned to understand, appreciate and leverage the unique, distinctive and one of a kind qualities each individual brought to my team.  That was a “massive” shift for me and a total game changer.

The days of one size fits all leadership are quickly coming to an end and are on life support.  Don’t try to hold on to it.  Let it go.  It’s a recipe for being left behind.  Embrace the unfamiliar so you can understand and capitalize on the unique talents each of your employees brings to the workplace.

In a recent blog, Seth Godin wrote a blog titled “Please consider Weird”.  In it he says that “The defining idea of the twentieth century, more than any other, was mass”.  He continues to say that the concept of mass is dead and that although that gets us uncomfortable it also provides us with a great opportunity.

The same applies to leadership. Although leadership of the masses (aka TEAM) is  our comfort zone,  we need to get uncomfortable to pave another way to harness the variety, creativity and innovation that each of our employees bring to the workplace. 

In a recent blog, Seth Godin wrote a blog titled “Please consider Weird”.  In it he says that “The defining idea of the twentieth century, more than any other, was mass”.  He continues to say that the concept of mass is dead and that although that gets us uncomfortable it also provides us with a great opportunity.

The same applies to leadership. Although leadership of the masses (aka TEAM) is  our comfort zone,  we need to get uncomfortable to create an opportunity to harness the variety, creativity and innovation that each of our employees bring to the workplace.

I think we do and we need to do it fast. In my last blog post I talked about how so many people have been approaching me lately about how unhappy they are in their corporate jobs.  I think the economic woes we’re facing are making people cautious about leaving a steady paycheck but at the same time, it’s highlighting just how pervasive poor leadership is within the corporate ranks.  When times were better, people had more career options and would leave a company when they got tired of its poor leadership. Today, they can’t and it’s putting a spotlight on just how de-moralizing poor leadership can be to a team.

Although leaders know they have the upper hand in this economy, they have to always remember that it won’t be like that forever. If they are lousy bosses, their employees know it and so does everyone else.

It’s not hard to re-imagine leadership so that you have happy employees. Any good leader will tell you that employees don’t want much – they want work that is fulfilling and they want to be respected and acknowledged for their contributions.  That’s it.  The problem is that many of us who have led for a number of years are sticking to some pretty outdated ways of leading that prevent our employees from getting those 2 simple things they want most.

So here are 3 things today’s hip and savvy leaders are doing to re-imagine how they lead in the 21st Century.

  1. They ask for advice.  Savvy leaders know that the days when they had all the answers are long gone.  Today, the employees in the trenches know more about what’s going on than they do.  After all, how current can you be when you’re stuck in meetings all day and most of your job requires you to ensure your team’s compliance with those countless regulations and policies required under HIPAA, SOX, MOUSE (just kidding).  Getting your team involved and listening to their ideas is instrumental for successful leaders in the future.
  2. They are willing to bend the rules. Let’s face it, the only way we are going to shed our old leadership comfort zones are to experiment with new ones. The only way to do that is if we bend the rules of how the game is played.  Now I’m certainly not advocating we go and break corporate rules and get ourselves into trouble.  I’m talking about breaking the rules we’ve used from the past to lead in the future. So for example, just because something hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Just because our best practices don’t align with the new idea being considered doesn’t mean we shouldn’t test the “best” practice to see if                 something better should replace it.  Bend the rules and test the “what-ifs”.  Those  “what-ifs” are the secret to staying viable in the future.
  3. They learn. If you aren’t open to learning new things every day you will not make it as a leader in the 21st Century.  The pace of change is grueling and it’s constantly challenging what we know on any given day.  If you want to sit on your laurels and reap the benefits of the expertise you’ve developed in the past, you will become the poster child for poor leadership.  You need to be in constant learning mode to hold the privilege of leading a team going forward.  By your example, your team will know that they need to stay sharp and keep their skills up to date. And here’s a secret:  you know those pesky 20-somethings that drive you crazy?  They are a GREAT resource for you to keep you learning and to stay relevant with what is happening in the world today.

So how about it? Do you want to just take up space until you reach retirement or do you want to make a difference to the generations of up and coming leaders that are watching you for clues on how to be the best of the best? It’s your choice.  If we are to re-imagine what leadership is going to be in the 21st Century, it starts with us – the leaders that have the courage to be different, be bold and willing to shed the past to make room for the future.