As the Business Landscape Evolves, So Too Must Leaders

FTI Consulting
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The global economy is slowly emerging from the darkest days of the pandemic. Now, employees are looking to their company leaders to provide a clear path forward.

What does it mean to be a great leader in today’s workplace? That question, so broad and open-ended, has many answers. However, it’s safe to say that the definition of the role, in all instances, has expanded significantly.

Given the unprecedented events of the past 12 months and the uncertainty of the times in which we now live, executive-level leaders are rethinking both their central purpose and how they can best inspire their teams and organizations in the next chapter.

Indeed, the combination of a global pandemic, heightened awareness of social injustices, natural and manmade disasters and strong headwinds in the global economy have raised the standards for excellence in leadership. People want their leaders to be visionaries who deliver growth and innovate in ways that make their lives better.

They also want their leaders to use their voices to effect change — to be champions of purpose and of the employees and customers essential to the company’s success. They want leaders who foster diversity, advocate for social justice and environmental concerns, adapt to new ways of working and deliver differentiated employee and customer experiences ... to name a few examples.

It’s a tall order. But the business landscape demands greater accountability from leaders and, by extension, the companies they run. Fortunately, there are areas where leaders can direct their focus to best prepare their teams for the future.

Listen and Adjust

While there are clear differences in how people experienced 2020, the events of the past year affected everyone both personally and professionally — and increasingly blurred the lines between the two.

Many teams are tired, and while some may be starting to see light at the end of a very long tunnel, others may still be suffering from loss, far from vaccination, scared to leave their homes for any number of reasons or just unwilling to give up the “silver linings” they’ve found along the way. It’s important for executive leaders to understand these dynamics to decide both how their organizations will move forward and how they will help individual team members be successful in the future state.

Successful leadership strategies begin with empathy and an honest desire to listen and understand diverse points of view. Equally important, leaders must be transparent in their willingness to respond and evolve based on what they hear, however uncomfortable they may feel. That was already true in a pre-pandemic world, but it has become even more visible and existential in our current reality.

It may be tempting to retreat to the perceived comfort and predictability of pre-pandemic norms. However, bringing teams successfully into the next chapter will, for most employers, require a blend of not only past and present but also new strategies to optimize (1) how work gets done, (2) the value of the physical and virtual workspaces, (3) the way talent is developed and rewarded, and (4) the way organizational culture must adapt to enable continued success.

Bring Diverse Voices to the Table

A convergence of tragic events, social justice movements and more-transparent reporting has elevated the sense of urgency with which many organizations are seeking to build and/or expand their diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs. Employees, customers, investors and broad public outcry demand action, and leaders are increasingly paying attention. Results have been mixed.

In D&I, even more than many other aspects of leadership, intention and authenticity are essential. Those leaders and organizations who will reap the greatest benefit from their D&I efforts will be those who approach diversity not as a matter of compliance or as a “nice thing to do,” but as a business imperative that delivers better thinking and, through that effort, better results.

So, what does good look like? For many leaders, expanding diversity will require them to first be vulnerable themselves — to admit what they don’t know, create forums for courageous conversations and be willing to share their personal experiences and mistakes. At the same time, conscious inclusion of more-diverse voices cannot just be a matter of listening. Leaders must also be willing to act on what they hear as visible sponsors of the lasting cultural change they want — and need — to see from their teams.

Design a Culture That Embraces Change

While it now seems cliché to say the events of 2020 were “unprecedented,” we should not expect that the “next normal” will be the norm for long. A recent survey of bank and non-bank lenders completed by FTI Consulting found that 58% of respondents expect another black swan event within five years, and nearly one-third expect that such an event will occur within three years. At the same time, trends toward automation and digitization — along with constantly evolving customer expectations — were causing many companies to rethink their ways of working long before the pandemic. These trends are expected to accelerate.

We already know that persistent, faster, broader-based change is the new normal, and the organizations best positioned to thrive will be those that embed a strong change capability into their cultures. The key is to master the “how.” And the majority of companies have not yet mastered this challenge. Change should not be a series of one-off initiatives but a constant desire to understand how expectations are evolving and to adjust accordingly. It’s a careful balance.

While leaders and teams will, in some spaces, need to get comfortable moving forward with incomplete information and innovating over time, they also must be sure they are asking the right questions — and effectively sharing information — to know what they’re solving for. Leaders who wait for perfect information risk falling behind. Moving too quickly may cause teams to create the right solution for the wrong problem. Leaders should seek to understand information flows, create more-direct connections where necessary, model the right behaviors and incentivize both collaboration and appropriate risk-taking to effectively take their teams into the future.

Enable Greater Leadership

Without a doubt, the future will require courageous leadership. This means embracing the new while honoring all that’s good about where their organizations came from, encouraging diverse points of view, and instilling a willingness to evolve in anticipation of continued change.

At the same time, leaders should also remember that they’re not expected to deliver on all these promises themselves, or overnight. Quite the contrary: Being vulnerable, asking daring questions and giving change time to change will be the mindset needed.

There will be many transitions to navigate in the years ahead. The best thing for leaders to do is remember to bring their teams along with them. By bringing the right people to the table and remembering they will need to continually iterate, leaders can feel more confident taking the next steps forward ... and the next ... and the next. Only by taking it one step at a time will leaders be able to finally answer the question of what it means to be a great leader in today’s workplace.

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