The future of leadership is always being questioned, explored, poked and prodded; yet the reality is that successful leaders tomorrow will most likely carry the same core qualities as those from today and years gone by. They will be leaders who have the vision of Steve Jobs, leverage disruption like Richard Branson and encourage constructive risk taking like Jack Welch. Above all, they will get that the relationships they create with their people will continue to be the beating heart of their success as a leader.
To put this in context let’s look at leadership through a couple of lenses that will matter in the coming years.
Engaging the Millennial Employee
It’s too easy (and lazy) to write off Generation Y with broad-brush strokes that categorise them as superficial and being the ‘me’ or the ‘I want it and I want it now’ crowd. The reality is that this is a generation connected to values, to each other and to the world as much as the generations that came before it – if not more. It goes without saying then that the most successful leaders of Generation Y will be those who take the time to connect with and genuinely understand what their Millenials want; from life and from work. You can’t discover this unless you build a relationship that is more than chatting about what you did on the weekend or the task at hand. The world is changing and we are well and truly in the Participation Age. As the name suggests, the people we are leading will increasingly expect to be involved at work. They will be as interested in the vision of the organisation as they will your personal vision for leadership and life – there will be no room to hide if your own personal line of sight from values to behaviour is blurred. They will want to be involved in decisions that impact organisational and team direction, and involved in decisions that impact them. So the more you understand, and really know the people you are leading, the more you will know how to direct and optimise their energy, and engage them in ‘why’ they are working with you and not just that they are.
Leading in Global Organisations
Everyday the world is becoming smaller; supply chains and markets are becoming global faster than ever before, and for leaders this means adopting a whole new mindset around how they connect as a leader. Teams are increasingly spread across more than one country and require a different style of leadership that engages and motivates in such a way that people feel like they belong – irrespective of where they are located. I’m fortunate to have worked with and been led by some really effective leaders over the years who have nailed this; one in particular stands out to this day. He was based in Parsippany, New Jersey and I was in Sydney, Australia. He also had reports in other countries and scattered throughout the US; and they all reported the same experience. He took the time to get to know us. Each phone call commenced on a personal level, he spoke as if we were old friends and drew us into the conversation. He also did a second thing very well; he spoke of our geographically dispersed team as if they were in the same room, as if I was sitting next to them! My colleagues, like him, were dotted line relationships, but he spoke as if we were blood relatives, and encouraged us to connect, share and leverage our collective knowledge. And we did. There were no silos and collaboration was the norm. It was as if the idea of borders and separate countries never even existed in his mind; and the assumption of his words and language was that we were one.
So what does this mean for the future of leadership? Probably the same thing it’s always meant; that we are leading people who at their core desire acknowledgement for who they are, and recognition for what they bring. People who, as Maslow suggested, like to belong. Factors that have never changed; but are about to become just a little more important to the leadership success equation. Perhaps it will become the era of the Relational Leader.
Leading global teams doesn’t have to be difficult, and as with many things it comes down to whether we are focusing on the ‘what’ (obvious cultural, behavioural differences) or the ‘how’ (the ways in which we bridge any gaps). I’ve worked with many diverse groups and teams over the years, many of which span borders. In this time I’ve often heard leaders and their team members lamenting the issues that come with global teams; different languages, time zones and ways of working that all combine to make working together difficult.
Whilst this is may be true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your challenges are wildly different from other teams; after all, both local and geographically dispersed teams share many of the same factors that impact on team performance; different personalities, conflicting working styles and individual motivations. For businesses located in multi-cultural countries, communication and collaboration issues underpinned by multiple ethnicities, cultures and therefore languages can be as present as those in a team spread over many countries.
Given that the underpinning challenges faced by both local and global teams are shared to a large extent, why is it that cross-cultural challenges are singled out as being ‘the’ issue that prevents cross-border collaboration? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the differences in a global team tend to appear more stark because the geographical dispersion becomes the obvious talking and starting point for perceived differences. It’s the easy answer. Yet, for the many global teams I’ve worked with, I’ve found that basic differences in working styles and personality have contributed to breakdowns in team collaboration as much, if not more than the cultural differences. In these situations, the global nature of the team can be seen as a magnifying glass that artificially distorts the real issues making them appear bigger than they really are.
This isn’t about discounting the challenges that come with teams spread across many countries. We all know there are headaches that come with aligning time zones, language and cultural norms. But what it does do is help to reframe the way we think about, and deal with, the challenges of a global team. If we think something is bigger than it really is, then we are on the back foot from the start. However if we are able to see that the issues we face are not that different from the ‘simpler’ teams we once led then it helps us to make different decisions around how we approach the challenges.
An easy example of this thinking is in the way we build a global team. Just as you would likely do some team building in a regular team, the same goes for a global team. Have the team come together and let them decide 'how' they will work together. Focus on communication style (how we communicate) rather than the difference in language (what we have to say). Openly discuss the challenges of geographical dispersion, and let the team decide the best way to optimise their relationships to overcome the tyranny of distance. Let all members of the team have a voice in the conversations and decisions, allowing the team to immediately experience ‘working’ together.
Focussing on how your team is working together is the path of least resistance when it comes to global leadership. When we focus on the 'what' we are often focusing on the superficial and on difference. For optimal global teaming results, acknowledge the ‘what’s’ whilst you work on the ‘how’.