Given that 21st century organisations require a much more bottom-up approach, where does that leave the senior leadership? At its most basic, the role of management will be about adding value to its employees, but most status quo organisations have employees serving bosses, not bosses serving employees. Furthermore, 21st century organisations will ask their employees to define what value managers can add.
As such, management roles will only survive if they can demonstrate that they can offer something teams won’t (be able to) do themselves. Here is a list of four roles that could remain (or become) a vital part of a senior leader’s existence. Together, these roles allow leaders to have a more human approach towards work. By this, we mean they are a vibrant source of example and energy for the organisation, replacing control of employees with service for them.
1. Personal context: What behaviour (internal and external) is important for a new era executive?
a) Personal nourishment
If organisations are to confront the lack of humanity in the system, then senior leaders must address it in themselves. This means scheduling time to invest in their whole selves: mind, body and soul. This will be one of their most challenging tasks in a demanding personal and professional schedule that has probably spiralled out of control. But without this, asking employees to bring their whole selves to work will be seen as an inauthentic performance ploy. What’s more, leaders will need the rest, energy and identity that investing in oneself provides.
b) Personal purpose
We need to connect employees’ personal purpose with that of their organisation. Senior leadership is not exempt from this. If they’re going to ask employees to find more meaning at work, then they must begin by finding their own.
c) Moral courage
Things are improving, but moral courage has long been absent from the boardroom. This is a senior leader’s toughest yet most important role.
d) Living by example
We’re not expecting senior leaders to be perfect – we’re all human. But if they want positive change to take hold, they must apply it all personally – to walk the talk. In particular, this means being willing to shift the tone and language of their organisations to something more intentionally authentic, honest and emotional. To show vulnerability. To act with humility. To seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
All the relational traits that we value in relationships outside the workplace are not only now relevant in the workplace, they are necessary.
We can’t hope to build relational organisations if we aren’t prepared to engage with all the aspects that real, committed relationships involve.
2. Classic context: Which executive duties will remain similar?
a) Providing clarity
Senior leaders will have to make the constant effort to clearly communicate information such as: what they require from the organisation, how they see the outside world, what the boundaries are, what business they’re in and where their organisation’s social license to operate comes from.
b) Final say
Having a more equitable working environment where employees find genuine freedom does not mean senior leadership loses its voice. If the norm is, say, 85/15 in their favour, we’re not suggesting a reversal or anything below 50/50. 51/49? That may well be the case, but senior leadership has a high-level perspective that others don’t – and that protects their right to final say.
c) Organisation structure
Senior leadership is responsible for deciding how the organisation should be structured. Their broad perspective of the ecosystem which the organisation inhabits, and the marketplaces it forms a part of, give them this authority.
d) Setting boundaries
Senior leadership can set boundaries for what or who the organisation is involved with, which includes setting limitations to the services and products. This is an area where moral courage may frequently be called upon: what markets they are going to be part of, what pricing strategies are they going to pursue, etc.
e) Thinking and dreaming
This is massive. Too many senior leaders have become over-absorbed in problem-solving and the day-to-day operations, and accepting too great a management burden has come at the cost of thinking and dreaming. Distributing authority should make room for what really matters – thinking about what matters!
3. Redesigned context: How can an executive facilitate change, away from the status quo and toward a more human way to work?
a) Redistributing privilege
For freedom to work within an organisation, senior leadership must redistribute the privileges and protections they enjoy.
b) Reimagining functions
Whole departments – particularly finance and human resources – need to be totally reimagined in freedom-centred workplaces; this is a big task that is loaded with emotional and practical challenges.
c) Dismantling bureaucracy
From finding processes that slow things down, to considering the impact of predict-and-control and management-by-objectives, to talking to stakeholders about where life could be improved and piloting new ideas… there’s a lot to unravel and rethink.
d) Rules for redesigning
Building more human workplaces is a redesign effort which touches on some of the most sensitive elements of an organisation. It is therefore important that senior leadership applies some limitations, even temporary ones, to ensure change does not get sidelined by politics. For example, early in the change process, a senior leader may decide not to fiddle with the remuneration system. This kind of control is, arguably, close to the status quo way of operating but it can be an effective way to prevent change from being derailed early on.
e) Social contracts
Social contracts are the (often unspoken) agreements we make in our relationships. For example, employees show loyalty by doing whatever they’re asked but expect the boss to fight their corner with the organisation in return. In freedom workplaces, these social contracts need verbalising and intentional redefining.
f) Reshaping rewards
Organisations need to move from a rewards-based to a more recognition-based system. Behavioural science tells us financial reward is not the prime motivator we have long thought it to be – meaning is. Senior leadership needs to recognise this and rethink incentivisation. This is not about paying people less. If anything, it’s probably about paying most of the people in the organisation more. Either way, it does involve re-evaluating the wisdom and application of performance pay. Check out this great tool for rewards and recognition here.
g) Information distribution
If organisations are like gardens, then information is like water. The status quo hordes it as a power play. Senior leaders must find ways to increase and broaden the level of transparency.
4. New context: What are the day-to-day duties of a new era executive?
a) Doing the work
Senior leadership has become so distracted by the need to manage (not lead) that they’ve stopped doing the actual work. Nobody within any organisation should spend their entire time managing other people; everyone, whatever their position, should also do some of the core work on a fairly regular basis.
b) Offer clarity on what, not how
This is the main point where the boundary-setting role of senior leaders end and the employees start to take over. To do so, business units must constantly ‘purchase’ the freedom they desire with promises to commit to the organisation’s guiding principles and a set of outcomes. In return, senior leadership remains a key architect of what those outcomes are – not how the units are expected to get there, but certainly as a contributor to where they’re expected to go.
c) Focusing efforts
The role here is not so much to illuminate what’s going on within the organisation, but more to apply a spotlight on what to focus on: choosing (with guidance) what to change, how to resource it and where to begin. This does not mean they articulate how to solve problems – senior leadership needs to get far better at highlighting issues without feeling the need to instruct on how to solve them.
Senior leaders should consider rethinking the traditional mentorship model and place themselves into co-mentorship relationships. Mentorship perpetuates the teacher-student relationship – we want to try and break that down.
e) Offer access to commercial literacy
Employees are woefully underprepared for the working world, let alone something with more responsibility and accountability. We can’t expect the average employee to leap into a heightened level of decision-making authority without furnishing them with the tools to do so.
That we have kept so many employees uninformed about the reality of running an organisation illustrates the lack of shared purpose and endeavour within an organisation, and the loneliness and exhaustion that is rife within the ranks of senior leaders.
A huge effort is required to educate them in everything from ‘what is debt?’ to ‘how do we read a profit and loss (P&L)?’ Senior leadership must make this happen.
f) Broker and banker
Teams and business units need resources. Senior leaders are a key help for providing employees with what they ask for to get the job done – from finances to relationships. This role best encapsulates the shift from people working for those above them, to those in authority serving those below.
Check out this great tool for senior leaders to get deep intelligence on your employees: