The future of work: How to be a 21st century leader at the edges

Every few years the business community latches on to some new “innovative” way of working that promises to reinvent corporate America. Everyone is buzzing about innovation and design thinking these days and what’s fascinating is neither of them are new concepts. Design thinking–a systemic approach to research, collaboration, business modeling and evaluation–helps us get back to a bit of common sense when it comes to business, and the future of work requires tons of common sense.

Find your organizational edge: What’s hiding in the margins?

What is often missing is that whatever methodology we choose, it must be embedded in our business DNA. You need to be willing to experiment and have the courage to look at possibilities that may be outside of your comfort zone. Getting a bunch of people in a room and applying design thinking may hurt your business more than help you if you merely use it as a new fad that you must have. You need to have the right people together (by design) and this way of working needs to be ingrained in your culture as a way to explore possibilities. This is where common sense and the future of work come into play.

We can no longer hide behind meetings and declare success just because we brought people together in a room and applied a cool new process. Because while we may be blue skying  in these meetings designing our thinking, there are a whole bunch of people working on the outside to disrupt our business model. Focus and speed become much more important in our ability to see beyond the present and find our edges. Mainstream is yesterday. What is in the margin that will help drive your business? What are your organization’s edges? Once you have your design, do you know how to make it happen?

A new leader is needed for the 21st century

The future of work needs new leaders; ones who are humble, confident and can jump start their organization around a vision that  takes them to the edges and allows them to not only innovate but also to experiment. The 21st organization needs leaders who may be led by the top but are driven by tapping into people inside and outside of the organization. They think and act not only by asking the right questions but also by listening and taking action. These leaders know that when facing an obstacle that what stands in their way brings them closer to the edges of their business. 

Have you seen this movie before?

I recently had a conversation with a manager who feels paralyzed; not by the external pressures of his industry but by the internal roadblocks. Shankar shared with me that he joined his company in 2010 when his start-up was acquired. He has great ideas that would have bottom line impact and take his organization to the 21st Century. But he is being told that he needs to be more like everyone else and that his style is too abrupt and transparent, His creativity and innovation are being crushed and he is being excluded from meetings and gets called out as an outlier that needs to reel himself in. He understands that everyone is under pressure but that this is an opportunity to go to edge with new thinking.

We’ve all seen this movie before. Shankar will ultimately leave the organization and find one where he can apply his breakthrough approaches. His organization is pushing him to their competitors instead of developing new breakthrough products. Who loses out? The manager who is not being allowed to apply his skill, talent and passion in his drive to take the organization to the next level and the organization who will end up watching their competitor launch a new, innovative product.

Umair Haque recently wrote a great piece on How and Why to Be a Leader (Not A Wannabe) and focused on the fact that 21st century leaders lead us to create, which is one of the goals of design thinking, We need leaders who challenge:

It’s often said that leaders “inspire”. But that’s only half the story. Leaders inspire us because they bring out the best in us. They evoke in us our fuller, better, truer, nobler selves. And that is why we love them — not merely because they paint portraits of a better lives, but because they impel us to be the creators of our own.

Courageous leaders look for ideas from everywhere. They know how to bring people together and build trusted relationships. They have the following skills:

  1. Build Trust. They start with the why and identify the problem. They do the hard work of spending time understanding and defining the problem they need to address. It is easy to jump to solutions and tactics. The hard work entails taking the time to fully understand the situation and see the opportunity. And they don’t delegate it. They lead by matching their words with their action. These leaders are able to be trusted since people see them living their values. They don’t have someone else writing in their voice but communicate authentically with conviction.
  2. Create Dialogue and Listen. They have conversations and some times tough ones that uncover the issues, the needs and share it with the right people, regardless of organizational hierarchy or boundaries. They want to do the right thing for the business and bring in the best solutions; not the latest shiny object or best practice that worked for someone else.
  3. Fail Openly and Share What They Gained. They don’t just focus on the success stories and feed them through the organization as the only way to drive the business. They ask and live “what/if?”  These leaders experiment and build in failure as a way to build a successful business. They understand that technology has given us more options to reach and connect with people and they can have new ways of acknowledging all efforts.
  4. Reward those who Identify the Edges. These leaders know how they like to be appreciated and recognized in personal ways and create new meaningful ways of recognizing and rewarding people. Good strategy means that you add value and know how tap into people to be different.

We need a new generation of leaders. And we need it now. 

People today want a leader who acts with courage, transparency and empathy. If you live it, you will win people’s trust and commitment. You will have thriving communities that you can tap into inside and outside of your organization. Leaders at the helm of 21st century organizations believe in the human capacity to drive their organization. They don’t talk about headcount and build fiefdoms, they inspire people at all levels of the organization by rewarding risk and those who create value. They do the hard work. They don’t delegate it to a handler or a function. They lead.

So I’ll leave you with this question, when you think of a 21st century leader, who do you think of and why? Are you one of them?

Ayelet Baron
Ayelet Baron
Ayelet combines lessons learned from more than a decade as a high-tech industry executive with her roots as a researcher, change catalyst and strategic communicator. This rare blend of expertise enables her to assess and advise individuals and organizations that seek to embrace new ways of working. She helps leaders transform and build healthy and resilient organizations. She is also a sought after keynote speaker on collaboration, leadership and building 21st century organizations. Her award winning business book, Our Journey to Corporate Sanity, helps you navigate a new path for business as a conscious 21st century leader.

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