What are the expectations for people leaders in the future of work that just arrived?
general business | specialist | expert

What are the expectations for people leaders in the future of work that just arrived?


While the requirements towards people leaders in the pandemic era haven’t changed significantly in scope, the expectations in regards to them are much higher and the environment is much more demanding. Managing people, including their engagement and retention, is no longer primarily the domain of HR professionals; it’s also becoming the key responsibility of team leaders.

With this in mind, I would like to share my perspective on how the expectations and requirements towards people leaders have evolved since the beginning of the pandemic, and how they’re likely to influence the post-COVID business reality.

Before I dive into this, let me start off by briefly discussing the status quo prior to the pandemic.

Hiring requirements and development of people leaders prior to the pandemic

Already before COVID-19, many organizations drove their management development efforts through the prism of the VUCA context. First used in 1987, the acronym stands for “Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity”. What it meant was that organizations needed to be agile – i.e., adaptable, open to change, and tolerant to failure.

This is clearly depicted in a piece published by Learnlight several years back, which predicted that “the 2019 leader is going to be much closer to their team and working much harder to foster an effective team culture – particularly with remote/virtual colleagues”. 

Secondly, pre-COVID-19, we’d also seen a trend for adopting a strong growth mindset – one that would contrast with the harmful “know-it-all” leader attitude. This meant that leaders already before the pandemic knew they couldn’t solely base their decisions on their past experience (‘what got you here, won’t get you there’ as Marshall Goldsmith famously said), and needed to keep rethinking their approach and to consult their team, peers, or even an extended network and the relevant data. I dive further into this in the next section.

Thirdly, it became increasingly evident to leaders how important it is to embrace and leverage diversity. They put more emphasis on fostering an inclusive culture within the organization, especially if they had a global, dispersed team.

As far as the post-pandemic world is concerned, while the requirements haven’t changed, the expectations regarding these requirements have, significantly, and I explore this below. 

How these three elements evolved during COVID

The world has undoubtedly changed, but as far as the desired leadership model is concerned, it hasn't changed overnight. When talking to my HR peers across the globe, what strikes me is how unequivocally they agree on what exactly makes it so challenging for the people leaders to be effective now. Namely, it’s how the seemingly familiar leadership skills currently need to be applied in a very different, hybrid environment. Not only that – it also takes much more intentional effort than anticipated to adapt to the remote-smart ways of leading in the new reality. Here’s how. 

#1 VUCA being replaced by BANI

Firstly, it is apparent that the VUCA context has now evolved further into BANI (“Brittle, Ambiguous, Non-linear, Incomprehensible”) – a term coined by Jamais Cascio. This relates to the increasing complexity, decreasing half-life of knowledge, and the non-linearity of today’s reality, and consequently the need to be humble enough to realize that the fact that you rely on the past experience as a leader doesn’t guarantee the same outcome. Especially, as the COVID world is unpredictable and, on many levels, incomprehensible. Simply said, the emphasis is on creating anti-brittle, anti-fragile organizations comfortable with ambiguity and unexpected shake-ups:

While the employee engagement data that is increasingly and more commonly collected and analyzed is of great value, it is subjective by nature. It is the objective insights on teams’ ways of communication, collaboration, team bonding, and knowledge exchange that need to be leveraged. These can be accessed through AI-based organization network analysis, an emerging ‘must-have’ people analytics method, that lets people leaders draw the right conclusions and make data-informed decisions on the improvements needed to thrive in the remote/hybrid business world.

#2 Adopting a ‘growth + versatility mindset’

This entails three things. 

Firstly, as McKinsey indicates, leaders need to adopt an ecosystem mindset. This presupposes that “all companies rely on the support of an extensive network of external people, vendors, and partners—all working together to create value. The most successful companies take this to an entirely different level, at which partnerships are more like extensions of themselves". And this is precisely one of the key ingredients to fostering the above-mentioned growth (i.e. learn-it-all, rather than know-it-all) mindset.

To put it into perspective, let’s assume that you’ve noticed a team’s performance dropping significantly. Before you act upon such a discovery, you need to dig deeper and verify whether there were some negative factors within the ways of working in the team and cross-team that could have caused this. Perhaps, with the lack of a physical office during remote work, your employees are struggling to work on cross-team projects due to cross-team information and/or knowledge silos, or collaboration overload?

Secondly, they need to dynamically switch between leadership styles – for example, from strategic to tactical and operational, and between enabling and forceful as advised by Kaiser and de Vries in their long-recognized Versatile Leadership model. 

Thirdly, you need to "learn how to learn and unlearn”. Companies that make sure they foster a psychologically safe, blame-free culture of learning, questioning the status quo, iteration, will be better able to thrive and have a competitive edge. As Ray Dalio famously put it ‘If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits, and if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximizing your potential’ so make sure you ‘create a culture in which it is okay to make mistakes and unacceptable not to learn from them’

#3 Moving to a ‘Remote Smart’ collaboration model

In the foreseeable future, we will have two generations dominate the work market – Millennials and Gen Z. While Millennials gave birth to the ‘digital natives’ term, Generation Z is the first truly virtual generation. To successfully lead teams made up of these two groups leaders will need to adapt and continuously improve something I like to call the ‘Remote Smart’ collaboration model. It is built around three crucial collaboration design ingredients: meritocratic collaboration culture, superior UX collaboration tools, and routines and rituals. All continually improved thanks to real-time insights on team collaboration patterns/habits – a relatively new possibility strongly advocated by the early adopters of ONA.

"Remote Smart" collaboration model

The pandemic has shown that many remote, distributed teams currently struggle to feel a sense of belonging and direction without real-life interactions. This is a challenge ONA tools such as Network Perspective, aspire to solve by allowing leaders to access team-level collaboration data, such as measuring the workload, time spent on intra-team and in cross-team meetings, the number of interactions with the leader, etc. This can shed light on ways leaders can improve their teams’ ways of working, improve their teams’ social learning and development rituals or support their teams’ feeling of safety and belonging, to name but a few. 

It is my belief that such PA tools are no longer nice-to-haves, but rather the future of work (which has prematurely just arrived) must-haves especially given that the war for talent already is an increasingly more intractable business challenge that will need to be addressed by comprehensive talent attraction and retention strategies. 

Michael Arena sums it up aptly by saying that, “organizations must also ensure that individuals are relationally positioned for success. In other words, bringing in the best people is only part of the solution. Firms must also bring out the best in people and that requires us to more intentionally leverage social capital”.

Closing remarks

Year over year, the bar is being set higher for people leaders. Organizations not only expect them to grow their skill set, but also their growth mindset – in particular, practice personal and team agility. On top of that, they need to leverage not just business, but also nuanced descriptive and prescriptive employee insights to be able to deliver value for the business, fast. 

Here’s where advanced People Analytics solutions like Network Perspective can provide leaders with the team collaboration data and insights they need, especially now in hybrid workplaces, on top of quality business data to do their jobs effectively and to ensure the competitive edge for their companies.

Reach out if you’d like to learn more about how Network Perspective can help you adjust to the changing requirements and leadership needs in the post-pandemic world.

August 8, 2021

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