New leadership in the working world

25 January 2023 Consultancy.uk 7 min. read
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The pandemic years have seen workplace behaviours change across all industries – and from the bottom to the top of companies. As executives contend with shifting expectations of their remit and responsibilities, William Jones, COMATCH’s Managing Director for the UK and North America, discusses how they can develop their skills to succeed in this brave new world.

The requirements placed on a good business leader have shifted over recent years. More collaborative working practices that discourage hierarchy are in demand; status symbols, once the marker of success, are less important; and a culture of innovation facilitated by understanding, empathetic leaders is the expectation of today’s younger cohort of employees.

While motivation remains an important driver for success, it is no longer the be all and end all. Instead, teams want to be inspired so that work is not just a tick-box exercise but a meaningful experience in which employees can make a tangible contribution that is fully appreciated. They want to demonstrate their individual talents and break out of a mundane job description.

William Jones, Managing Director, COMATCH UK & North America

These changes in the physical and virtual workplace have the potential to present challenges for business leaders and managers. It is still important that they and their teams have goals that they can be measured by but equally to focus on developing the individuals in those teams with energy and deep engagement.

HR departments are being forced to rethink their management development methods, while the march towards digitalisation is forcing job function change at every level. Client demands are growing even as companies aim to bring staff back into the office so they can work together, whilst also making provision to support long-term hybrid working models.

Leaders must adapt to meet new expectations if they are to remain not just relevant, but standard bearers for the future. To put this into context, let’s compare former expectations of leaders with what is expected now:

Old vs New

Under the traditional form of leadership, CEOs would sit at the top of the hierarchy of their company and dedicate most of their time to setting and monitoring goals, establishing KPIs and putting cost management processes in place. Both leadership and company culture came under the auspices of the HR department.

Modern management demands that CEOs dedicate most of their time to issues of leadership, company culture and the working environment. They are expected not only to set values and champion them but to live them too. If they want employees to be in the office three days a week, they should be in four days a week to set the example. They are also expected to discuss these matters in depth with the executive team and decide on the kind of leadership culture the company needs; what should be implemented to create an inspiring environment that will nurture talent; and how to address and action sustainability goals for the company.

Leadership was previously conferred on the most senior person in the room, and not necessarily because they had demonstrated great management or leadership skills. The concept of leadership was rarely discussed but it was clear that what they expected from employees was performance and productivity.

Now, however, it is leaders who are expected to perform, and they face demands from the Board and from employees to deliver to specific expectations. They are selected carefully, and investment is made in their development. As a result, they look to themselves to ensure the team is happy, has a sense of belonging, is inspired and can work towards achievable goals that will deliver success.

The executive team

What we now consider to be the C-suite was previously the group of executives who had responsibility for different departments. If they met targets, the company was unlikely to make alterations and the idea of employees making demands for cultural changes was almost unheard of.

Organisations now expect their executive team to regard employees positively and encourage them to collaborate in decision making. Instead of seeing themselves as a layer above, they are happy to share their experience in a way that boosts team spirit, collective success and a positive working environment. They see it as their role to develop individual potential across departments in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Under old leadership styles, senior manager development was dealt with internally as a cost factor. In terms of form and content, professional development programmes had become very outdated.

In the modern business world, the development of leaders is regarded as a worthwhile investment. While CEOs usually have years of experience to fall back on, managers are given tailored and personalised development interventions, often backed up with one-to-one mentoring, sponsorship schemes or peer-coaching. This gives them the support they need to develop a personal vision of success for themselves and their team and helps to engender a sense of belonging and self-esteem.

Employee changes

One of the biggest challenges for leaders is managing meetings and communication and this has accelerated since the Internet age (no more letters, faxes, and pagers). This is not just because teams are working remotely or in a hybrid way, but because work is conducted across multiple mediums. This results in data overload, so leaders must learn to pare down to the most vital information.

Matrix organisations in which departments collaborate can also result in hours spent in meetings, so again curating these events is a must. If even a fraction of this communication is done remotely, leading by force of character is tricky, and leaders gain more by prioritising the channels and the meetings that are most important, and delegating where appropriate.

The shift in how leaders are evolving to become team-focused and outward-looking, rather than inward, is beginning to enable change in the workplace. Where once employees followed their leaders based simply on their role, or title, they now not only follow, but interact with leaders because they are charismatic or inspirational. The shiny new car, Rolex watch and designer clothes that previously made leaders stand out from the crowd are being rejected in favour of improved interpersonal skills and more time with the team, but leaders must be cautious not to spread themselves too thinly.

As the nature of our working environments continues to change and employees are less physically or geographically connected with leaders, it will be incumbent on CEOs and the C-suite to build a new style of company culture. Leadership will be via virtual collaboration, but the focus will still be on how they can best serve as inspirational role models.

COMATCH is a digital marketplace for independent management consultants and industry experts. The firm’s unique vetting process has helped secure the organisation assure quality for customers, while its matchmaking process has seen it supply independent consultants with projects in markets worldwide.