The last few years have forced us to reexamine almost all aspects of business, and leadership is no exception. While there will always be fundamentals to good leadership that will remain a constant, there’s no question the landscape has changed. Today’s leaders are operating in a world that demands more transparency, technical savvy and emotional intelligence than ever before. The EB & Flow podcast recently wrapped up a series on the current state of leadership, talking to professionals with experience both leading and coaching others. Here are five trends leaders need to be aware of as they navigate 2022 and beyond.
It wasn’t too long ago that success for many leaders was measured only in profits and other hard numbers, and the world outside of that spreadsheet had little bearing on the choices an organization made. That’s just simply not true anymore. Societal events now play a role in what kind of workplace culture we create, and how leaders respond to what’s happening in the world is watched closely.
“Leaders today don’t really have a choice but to have a point of view, whatever that point of view may be,” said Vanessa Ruda, a senior partner at RHR International.
And the most important aspect of that response is that it is authentic. Leaders need to be transparent and honest in what they say and do because employees are looking to them to set the example for what kind of culture the organization represents. They want to know their leaders aren’t just using empty words, but that they actually care about how their employees feel.
“The landscape has, as we all know, shifted dramatically. And what I believe that means for leaders is we have to be more empathetic,” said Bethany Berkeley, owner of Dale Carnegie Training of North Dakota and Minnesota. “We need to be more agile, authentic, and showcase empathy with everything that we do.”
Being authentic in your role also helps center your own leadership journey, because you can also be honest with yourself and use that as an impetus for growth.
“The more I learned, the more I realized, man, there's a lot I don't know,” said Dave Stende, former managing partner/CEO for Eide Bailly. “And, you know, I think in a way that probably helps because it certainly grounds you, and it probably opens your mind to really hearing the opinions of others because you don't know all the answers.”
Leading Versus Managing
It doesn’t take long in any organization to understand that titles do not bestow leadership skills in a person. Those skills must be honed and consistently used in order to make a difference. And as leaders adapt to a new world where remote employees and hybrid workplaces make personal connections more complicated, understanding the difference between leading people and managing people is critical.
Managing is about the tasks, said Berkeley. “It's the way that we need to manage a process,” she said. “I don't love that term because who wants to be managed? You want to be led, you want to be inspired and motivated.”
Leading, on the other hand, is about seeing people as people, not “doers.”
“Leading, for me, is also recognizing that I want to hire and be surrounded by people who are smarter and more talented than I am in every single way,” Berkeley said.
For Stende, he realized early in his tenure in the C-suite that he had done a lot of “managing” previously in his career.
“The evolution of leading is much more focused on not managing the people, but leading the people, empowering people and, you know, giving them responsibility and nurturing them and mentoring them along the way,” said Stende.
Being Comfortable with Ambiguity and Change
It’s fair to say that all of us, not just leaders, have learned some lessons in ambiguity and change the last several years. What leaders need to remember and take into account is that when difficult situations arise, they are often the ones who will have to make a final decision.
“Many people find success in their careers because they're able to gather facts and gather data and analyze them quite well and make decisions,” said Ruda. “And when you're sitting in those top roles, there's much more ambiguity than one would think and the pressure to make decisions without complete information.”
It’s a bit of a balancing act where leaders need to have a strong point of view and be decisive based on goals and priorities, but also being open to new information that may bring out the need to pivot.
“Managing that balance of having your radar up for information that would suggest you need to shift course but at the same time being resolute and unapologetic for the direction that you believe the organization needs to go, I think is a critical success factor,” said Ruda.
It’s a skill Dave Stende knows firsthand.
“I think it takes a certain amount of courage from a leadership perspective as far as sticking to your guns and pushing that change along, knowing that there will be a lot of detractors along the way,” Stende said. “But, you know, you've got to accumulate the information and make the best decisions possible. I think one of the keys of good leadership is being decisive but willing to adapt along the way and with change.”
Many businesses are looking at creating a hybrid workplace, one where employees split time between being in the office and working remotely. But how do you keep the company culture and continue to build informal mentorship and other relationships? Learn more in this episode of EB & Flow.
Avoid Personal Burnout
Ruda said one of the things she tries to prepare new leaders for is that the old saying “it’s lonely at the top” is often true. Leaders will see the circle of people they can confide in shrink because they will be privy to information they simply cannot share with others.
And that loneliness combined with the expectations of a leadership role can often leave leaders feeling burned out.
“I like to share with people that it's important to not think of burnout as an end state,” said Kelsey Buell, founder of the Burnout Prevention Project. “I like to think of it more as a continuum. And what I mean by that is every day we have an opportunity to either do things throughout our day that will help us move away from being burned out or that will cause us to move towards being burned out. And so if we can find ways to avoid prolonged stressors or ways to again continue to not be under pressure every single minute of our day, over time, that can really help us to continue to move away from burnout.”
Taking care of yourself will help you be a better leader, but first you need to know what will help.
“The first thing I talk to people about is just really helping them understand what in fact, is energizing to them,” said Ruda. One you have that understanding, it’s important to be intentional about doing those things as a way to approach a more balanced life.
And while a leader’s circle of trust may shrink, it’s important to think about the people who can still be in that circle and making sure you keep that network strong.
Take Care of Your People
If today’s leaders truly want to lay the groundwork for a successful organization in the future, then they need to take care of their people.
“Now more than ever, and I think for the foreseeable future, taking care of the health and well-being of your overall employee base is a must- have not a nice-to-have,” said Ruda. “My biggest piece of advice would be, don't lose sight of the human beings who are working in your organization.”
Asking your people questions about how they are feeling, what they want in a workplace culture and how to achieve that are critical in a time when many employees are weighing their career options.
If leaders want their organizations to be innovative, they need to keep the people they have, keep them engaged and meet them where they are, said Berkeley.
“We can't read each other's minds, but we can create an open environment to talk authentically about how we're feeling,” Berkeley said.
One of the roles of firm leadership for Stende was helping develop and mentor staff members on their career journey, which reminded all involved that they all shared a common goal—growth.
“We're all teammates and we're all on the same team and we we're all approachable,” said Stende.
Leadership has always come with immense responsibility, but few are as important as the people that make up your team.
“It's so easy for leaders to have such a tunnel vision and focus on the goal, that they forget to take care of their people,” said Buell. “And at the end of the day, if your people are taken care of, they will take care of you and the business. And if you have happy employees, you'll have happy customers.”
Listen in to learn more about leadership, business trends and growth ideas for middle market businesses.