Business leadership is always changing, but the pandemic is pushing an accelerated transformation. As the pandemic drags on, we won’t really be able to assess the gravity of changes for a few more years, yet it’s pretty clear where we’re going. While leadership development was trending in certain directions the past few years, it’s like in 2020 someone put their foot down on the pedal. And if you got your MBA a decade ago, you might be struggling to keep up with the new world order. Now more than ever, leaders are being called on to adapt if their teams and organizations are going to get through this pandemic with colors flying. So what kind of issues should leaders be considering when looking for further development? Here’s some top leadership development trends that are dominating the business landscape in 2021.
If there’s one thing we weren’t expecting in 2019, it would be that the whole world would be working from home the following year. Businesses that had never thought of having a remote workforce were thrust into virtual meetings and makeshift home office setups. For other companies, the past decade has been all about building virtual teams, and remote workforces have been central to many business plans. For the companies that are playing catchup on the remote team phenomenon however, 2020 has changed the way we communicate irrevocably.
The simple key to building remote team culture is to reflect on how we communicate face to face, and translate that to a virtual environment. Companies have even tried to replicate social interactions and water cooler conversations in online settings. It takes some creativity, but teams that engage in social coffee breaks online or partake in team competitions, quizzes and sharing of Netflix recommendations or recipes, are generally coping better during the pandemic than those who haven’t gone the extra mile to replicate face to face contact.
Building remote team culture has also demanded teams and especially team leads, be more empathetic. We’ve been forced to consider employees’ health and home life, as people were affected differently by the pandemic all over the world. Some people have had parents and family who were sick, others have tried to work at home and home school their kids at the same time, for weeks on end. This has demanded empathy from team leads and organizations.
Building remote team culture is also about setting clear team expectations. Every workplace has needed to define their ‘new normal’ and adapt their processes as such. Bring awareness to staff about cyber-ostracism, which is when a team member might be left out of emails or chats. This might be completely unintentional, but can be really detrimental to team dynamics when team members are working on their own and don’t have the opportunity to follow up with colleagues face to face. The virtual workplace demands we're a bit more stringent with communication protocols. Team leads need to keep on top of communication, ensuring nobody is left out. Team leads also bear an onus of checking in regularly with staff and offering ongoing emotional support. Don’t assume everyone knows what they’re doing and that they’re OK. We also learned during this pandemic that peoples’ circumstances can change drastically from one day to the next, so managing a healthy, remote team means at minimum daily check-ins with all team members.
The upside of the pandemic is that it should make us more resilient. Companies should accelerate their capacity to adapt and some companies will positively thrive during the economic downturn. This might be contrary to logic, however half the companies on the 2019 Fortune 500 List were founded during an economic downturn. Unicorns like Airbnb, Slack and Uber, were born after the Global Financial Crisis. It’s likely the next few years will see a new breed of entrepreneurs and companies adapting to the challenges the current downturn brings with innovation and resilience. Every leader should be asking how current instability and change will affect their offering, organization and processes. Leaders should identify how and when to act to position their team and organization for best outcomes.
New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern says economy and wellbeing are intrinsically linked, and she’s not the only exponent of this perspective. Wellbeing leadership is an approach that aims to maximize outcomes economically, materially, physically, psychologically, socially, culturally, environmentally and spiritually. The focus on wellbeing has been accelerated by a health crisis which has brought team members’ specifically physical and psychological wellbeing into question. A pandemic is forcing a shift in prioritizing wellbeing way beyond 90s concerns of work/life balance. Physical and mental health of the workforce has meant sink or swim for countless organizations who have had to respond with an appropriate degree of flexibility and empathy to accommodate staff’s wellbeing. Wellbeing is not at the expense of stakeholders however. Wellbeing leadership means striving to balance the eight components for mutually beneficial outcomes for staff as well as stakeholders.
The past few years have put increasing focus and pressure on organizations to adapt to more sustainable business practices to meet environmental challenges. The pandemic has only brought the focus more to the fore since many of the challenges businesses are now facing, could just as well have been caused by a natural disaster or some other sudden resource shortage or disruption. An important take away for leaders is that they need to prepare their organizations to mitigate future risk. It’s time to examine organizational vulnerabilities and build up resilience. Realizing that chaos like we’ve experienced the past years could equally be brought about by natural disaster, and knowing the impact of climate change, leaders can’t ignore societal expectations. In order to retain legitimacy, organizations need to be in step with ‘the triple bottom line’ - that is, a concern over social and environmental impact as well as financial. Consumers are increasingly holding businesses to account over their environmental practices and social ethics and leaders who don’t take such concerns into account will be left behind. They risk losing not only community, but employee and investor support.
Another trend in leadership development is what’s been termed vertical leader development. The contention is that traditionally, leadership development has been ‘horizontal’. That is, it’s been about expanding skills, adding to the skills you already have as a leader. As you gain more skills, your knowledge and competency expands. It’s about training in discrete topics such as dealing with conflict, strategy and communications to build the skill set.
In contrast, vertical leadership development is about changing the way a leader thinks in order to impact what they do and how they behave. The focus is on becoming a more self-aware thinker, who is collaborative, adaptable and flexible and therefore better able to function across different networks. It’s about developing the whole person, especially with regards to intuition and emotions, as well as the intellectual, so that leaders are able to integrate ways of thinking and being into the organization’s planning, knowledge sharing, mentorship and coaching to impact the whole organization.
Vertical leader development is a more specific manifestation of the general trend of neuroleadership. David Rock explains that neuroleadership focuses on improving leadership by developing a science for it that is directly based on the physiology of the mind and brain. Brain science has come leaps and bounds in the 2000s, and the increased understanding of the brain and mind/body connection is changing the way we approach developing people.
The driving idea behind neuroleadership is the proposition that leadership is not just about what you do. It’s about how you think. Neuroleadership builds on the foundational work on mindset, and particularly growth mindset as discussed by Carol Dweck, which has already been popular in many corporations. Whether it’s growth mindset, vertical leader development, or even empathy, undoubtedly the continuing focus as neuroscience progresses at such a rapid rate is to use this data as a compass and supplement to experiential data on leadership.
Business professors Mihnea Moldoveanu and Das Narayandas contend that traditional leadership development through MBAs, classrooms and the like is no longer adequately equipping leaders and that the gaps and weaknesses in traditional leadership development are addressed by a development model they term, the “personal learning cloud”.
This term refers to online courses, interactive platforms, and digital tools from a variety of players from business schools to LinkedIn to McKinsey and BCG. Online development alternatives make it easy and more affordable to obtain more personal, specific learning that can be contextualized to challenges a leader is facing in the working environment. In this way, it’s flexible and allows leaders to tailor their development and build skills in areas that have the most relevance to their practical experience.
It’s certainly arguable that online offerings work well with the remote and virtual working environs the pandemic has precipitated, however as with any information dispersed online, there’s always an issue of quality. Moldoveanu and Narayandas make the case in an article for Harvard Business Review that there is sufficient choice and high quality content from which to obtain ‘micro-certifications and credentials’ and that there is also sufficient social interaction and input in these offerings. The question is whether the social solutions presented by online training will be enough to usurp the role of business schools and professional degrees and only time will tell as more leaders take this route, whether the virtual network and social interactions can compare to the face to face learning environment a physical business school can offer and the subsequent value of an active alumni network.
Another trend of note is that increasing numbers of staff are being developed as leaders. Leadership development is not just for the upper echelons of the organization since trends in organizational processes and behaviors are requiring more staff to make the kind of decisions that need to align with corporate strategy and that affect others. Digital platforms have empowered staff to take more responsibility and in many cases, made organizations flatter, meaning more people need to develop leadership and communication skills.
Leadership development in 2021 is personal. Whether it’s about customized training and learning to build a personalized development package, or about how any given leader thinks and how their unique mindset affects their team, leadership is very much rooted in who we are as individuals. Whether it's a more horizontal approach of building the toolbox or a more vertical approach of building the person, leaders in 2021 are being pushed to be more holistic in their leadership. They need to think about societal and environmental as well as financial impacts. They need to consider employees’ wellbeing and be more empathetic, flexible and supportive as leaders to meet not only the challenges posed by the pandemic, but to continue to stay relevant.