· Insights

Does the future depend on re-learning how to lead?

When only 10% of UK employees thrive in the workplace, does this mean leaders are failing in their duty to lead? Or is it time to re-evaluate what leadership is all about?

In this series we’ve looked at the changing expectations of employees and how there is a growing shift towards greater autonomy made possible by technological advances, not least AI.

This, applied well, is empowering the workforce to take greater responsibility for its own learning and career development, within, of course, a managed structure and a wider business strategy.

Success is dependent on having the right people with the right skills, in the right place, and at the right time.

Technology is the enabler to make that not just a possibility, but a reality.

Yet there are forces, many outside of our control, which are pushing back against this reality.

Covid had many employees voting with their feet and, in some cases, opting out or re-evaluating their relationship with work.

We’ve had two financial crashes in 12 years, and skills shortages continue to hold back many businesses.

Worst of all we have employees who are telling survey after survey that they’d prefer to be anywhere other than at work. Gallup has been the latest and most shocking of all.

They found 90% of UK workers were disengaged, with a mere one in ten feeling they could thrive in the workplace.

Assuming that we are all striving to attract, develop and retain talent, and that these objectives are mission critical, then we – and by that I mean managers and leaders – face an uphill struggle. Something has got to change, and quickly.

Change starts at the top

There is ample research that suggests when it comes to company culture, the line manager is a vital part of formulating and implementing that culture. 

The way an employee perceives that culture is via their relationship with their own line manager.

This doesn’t let leaders off the hook, as it is their role to create the optimal conditions for that culture to grow and thrive. That’s a huge responsibility, and one which survey after survey suggests is an almost impossible task.

So is it time to ask the all-important question: what does an effective leader look like in this new world of challenge and change?

If we start with that question, what follows is that we need to address exactly what changes have to happen to enable the leaders to re-engage and motivate their work force, so that next time Gallup come calling, the engagement figures look far more encouraging.

Just what are the expectations of your teams? How can they be addressed while also accepting the external challenges any business faces in the future?

Are we going to see yet more a significant shake ups of the way we structure and design our organisations?

Are virtual teams and mobile working here to stay, and if so what does that mean for the way those individuals are managed and focused and motivated?


Why soft skills are actually hard

In the face of these huge structural and behavioural stresses, it may well be that it is impossible for one individual to lead in the traditional sense.

If we are looking towards a more empowered workforce, does that mean we need leaders who have a different skill set, behaving in a way which is facilitative, inclusive and collaborative?

Leaders who can listen, are unafraid to question, even admit they don’t have all the answers.

Are these perhaps the behaviours which we now require in our leaders to enable them to deliver success?

These are, laughingly in my opinion, seen to be soft skills. They’re not by any means – they are hard skills to develop, let alone to be lucky enough to possess in the first place.

They are not always appreciated in business. Which is why it might be time to turn leadership on its head: time to ask some vital questions about the very fabric of our organisations, their purpose and function.

These are fundamental questions indeed.

Yet they need to be answered.

Autonomy, if it is to deliver, and if we are looking to put the right person with the right skills, in the right place at the right time, then we need to be as flexible in our thinking as it’s possible to be.

Technology is going to fundamentally change the way we work: the onus now is on organisations to really think through the impact this will have on work and workers, and how leaders can best be supported to enable them to facilitate this change to the very best of their ability.

Michael Esau, global HR advisor, SAP