The leadership job has changed dramatically in the past two decades
Pandemic, recession, and layoffs, OH MY! Everything is a lot right now.
I’ve been thinking about what it takes to lead while the world is under sustained duress. I’ve also been thinking about how it tends to look different based on your employees’ generation.
I’m forty years old. This makes me an elder millennial, often referred to as Xennial — a small age group shaped by an analog childhood and a digital young adulthood. We were raised by Baby Boomer morals, values, and work ethics. Gen X students of tough love, we worked hard to earn trophies and accept losses. And still, we sometimes feel entitlement and understand the need millennials have to move faster with career progression. We also admire how Gen Z challenges social systems.
The leadership job has changed dramatically in the past two decades. I can see the difference between what I used to expect and what’s expected of me. It’s a lot more, and the expectations are peaking during this hot mess.
So let’s take a look at what’s required for the leadership role right now:
The likelihood that your CEO and exec team is mostly Gen X is high. Gen X cares about growth, profit margins, and reducing costs. They are driven by ensuring the business performs at or above targets.
Gen Y cares about flexibility, and Gen Z is driven by feeling valued, being empowered to make decisions, and managers that invest in their personal development.
Great leaders can connect the dots between meeting business goals and understanding human motivations. It takes a lot of work and a high EQ.
A good strategy for bridging this gap is building a high-care & high-performance culture. This works well when crystal clear performance standards are married with a highly flexible work environment, giving your team members control over how they meet goals.
Let’s face it: Today’s workforce is struggling. The impact of the pandemic and the looming recession on top of everyday challenges are immense.
Brené Brown is famous for highlighting the merits of vulnerability in leadership. She also targets the emotions of courage and empathy. You need to meet your team members where they’re at with empathy. That’s the Brown part.
Then you need to coach them up. The TV character Ted Lasso has reminded us all what great coaching can do for underperforming teams. One of his famous quotes is, “I believe in hope. I believe in believe.” The combination of kind support alongside a motivational talk is incredibly powerful. You need to meet your employees where they’re at and get (and keep) their heads in the game.
We saw the silent resignation & advent of quiet quitting. That was the beginning of disengagement. Now the employment tides have turned, and we’re seeing mass layoffs. People are disengaged and scared. While you need peak performance, you’re just not going to get it from a disengaged workforce. Your team needs to be engaged. Don’t get lazy and think you don’t need to be a great leader just because attrition risk is low. That strategy will bite you the second the tides turn.
Leaders need to focus on engagement and use digital team-building tools to build & sustain connections. At my current company, we actively survey for engagement and can spot issues such as employees who feel their managers don’t care. It’s only one engagement metric, but you need to be in touch and ask basic human questions. Asking, “How are you doing?” goes a long way. This used to happen organically in offices, and now you need to make it happen digitally.
If you haven’t read about servant leadership, the concept was founded by Robert Greenleaf in 1970. The cliff notes are that traditional leadership involves the exercise of power and getting team members to execute leadership ideas. In contrast, servant leaders share power and empower team members to create solutions to problems. Servant leaders even support the execution of their team members’ ideas.
But there’s a dark side to servant leadership which is service leadership.
I’m coining it because leadership has become a customer service role, a high-stakes & high-stress form of customer service. You need to be with your people, for your people, or they will have you removed. This might happen through complaints to HR, feedback in engagement surveys, or an organized coup. And it’s not that hard because transparency, feedback forums, and eNPS have become part of successful organizations. There are many ways for employees to praise or criticize you, and while praise takes the stairs, criticism takes the elevator.
Leadership today is about service and accountability. You cannot be about yourself, your ideas, and your power and expect to thrive as a leader.
Adam Grant, professor of organizational psychology and award-winning author, has a great podcast on how to love criticism.
The 2023 leader is expected to give and receive feedback willingly.
It is required in servant or service leadership, or you aren’t investing in your people to make them the best they can be. Because we are all imperfect with room to grow, it’s not just about giving feedback and criticism to those you manage; it’s about giving and receiving feedback with your peer leaders and your own boss.
At my current company, we follow The Table Group method, famous for making organizations & leadership teams smart & healthy. The smart side is about driving to performance; the healthy side is about eliminating negative behaviors like politics. In this format, we’re trained to build trust and have productive conflict. We can openly share feedback that will help improve company results.
The 2023 leader is up against it. The job has never been bigger. You do not employ the power & control of the top-down management structure of the past. You are expected to be an inspiring servant-leader whose focus is the development of people who work for you. You are in danger of being unseated if you do not empower the people. You might ask yourself, “Why aspire to lead at all in a demanding, thankless, and high-stakes role?”
You can be a better leader than those before you, those that dealt with less complexity, those that had low EQ and ruled by power and fear. You just need to understand your team members’ contexts and what motivates them, and then coach them to their best performance. By showing them you care, you can inspire them to want to do their best for you.
There is one constant cross-generational motivator: People want to know their leaders care. If you don’t care about them, they won’t care about you, and you’ll never get their best for the companies you lead.