Johan Roos Chief Strategy Officer, Hult International Business School
Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño Executive President, IE University
Patricia Pomies Chief Operating Officer, Globant
Rosanna Sibora Vice President Digital Products & Innovation, Universal Music Group
Setting the Stage
When the pandemic hit, few companies were prepared for the unpredictability of the threats and related challenges that it brought. The completely unexpected need to switch the internal operating system to fully digital within days ruthlessly exposed the flaws and booby traps hidden in many organizations. Operations were not prepared. Staff was not prepared. Management was not prepared. Governance was not prepared. Media discontinuities, paper files, compulsory attendance, undocumented workarounds, and micromanagement became visible as what they are: the legacy debt of an anachronistic business culture that suddenly turned into a very real threat to the business. In many companies, home office was more an incentive-like working model for a small number of employees. All of a sudden, this exotic mode of working turned into the new normal, creating a bunch of unsolved problems for the routines of a legacy business operating system. Managers and employees were thrown into the deep end of a new digital reality where established cultural habits and soft practices lost their impact.
Drucker Forum 2021
Technology – Driver or Threat
Looking back on these early days, it is obvious that the problem had different layers. On the one hand is the problem of how to deal with technology. Often digital technologies are seen as purely an IT matter, leading to a lack of knowledge and understanding in the rest of the company. Also dangerous is the glib assumption that “technology or digital tools will solve the problem and make change happen”, overestimating their impact on deep-rooted procedures and habits, as well as their ability to solve the problem of missing leadership. All this can leave an organization digitally unprepared when a pandemic hits. In today’s world technology cannot be delegated, since everyone needs to have the knowledge, the ownership and the skills to make use of it.
On the other hand, there are big issues in management and leadership. The pandemic created a situation of great uncertainty, compacting corporate working routines. From one day to the next people became isolated and invisible behind their computer screens at home. They lost the office as the familiar locus for social interaction with peers, managers and leaders.
This presented a huge problem for leaders, as it is difficult to create a safe social space using narrow band communication through digital channels. Capabilities like empathy, listening and awareness of what happens in the team on a daily basis are easily lost in digital operations, yet are must-haves in situations like the pandemic, with teams and leaders daily dealing with uncertainty, anxiety and stress. Such situations call for the full range of human-centered leadership skills, trust and psychological safety – and not for more micromanagement. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic quickly exposed the many organizations lacking these leadership skills and cultures, greatly contributing to record levels of employee turnover throughout the US, for example.
Understanding the Human Side of Business
The session panelists described the different leadership challenges they were facing, and what they did about it in their respective organizations. During the pandemic, the boundaries between private and professional life blurred. While challenging, this situation also offered the chance to better understand employees and to connect emotionally on a much deeper level than in the office: Seeing their living rooms and getting to know their children and families, leaders could build a new depth of connectedness within the team, develop fresh leadership abilities and stronger social skills.
Expanding on these individual leadership skills, leadership development also took a giant leap forward. It is no longer sufficient to manage known risks and to lead people through best practices with superior knowledge. Uncertainty, i.e. not having superior knowledge, characterizes the new business environment in which leadership has to prove its worth. Leadership, and leadership development then, is all about people and continued learning to understand the nature of new challenges and deal creatively and effectively with them. In addition, this has to happen at all levels of an organization, requiring more leaders everywhere. Discovering and developing new leaders can start small, by combining the need for more learning, training and leadership. Globant, for instance, successfully instituted communities of practice to share good practices among peers. These communities set the stage for individuals who were gifted trainers, and who were good at leading others without having formal authority over them. Talented new leaders rapidly emerged from these communities, equipped with exactly the skill sets required for the new business challenges: Leading others without having formal authority, proactively rising to new challenges and easily adjusting to new technology.
Leadership Development 2.0
Bringing newly-forged leadership talent like this into formal leadership development programs quickly exposes their flaws. Existing programs are too focused on management and leading with formal authority. Reforming leadership education in business schools and development programs inside organizations might sound revolutionary– but it is no less than a necessity for the times ahead.
Future leadership development needs to put much more focus on building interpersonal skills, encouraging entrepreneurial opportunism and continuous learning. The path of leadership can only be an individual journey of exploration, constantly taking advantage of new opportunities to grow and learn in real-world challenges. This setup has a far more experimental nature than in the past, and no pre-cut-out career paths. It requires patience and mentors who really care. After all, you cannot become a good leader unless you have a deep liking for people. Nor can one develop leaders without liking them – they are people too.
Today, we need good leaders more than ever.
About the Author: Janka Krings-Klebe and Jörg Schreiner are founders and managing partners of co-shift GmbH, helping companies to transform into business ecosystems. Their latest book is “Future Legends – Business in Hyper-Dynamic Markets“ (Tredition 2017). Both also contributed to “The Power of Ecosystems“ (Thinkers50 2021).
This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the 13th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “The Human Imperative” on November 10 + 17 (digital) and 18 + 19 (in person), 2021.