My mother was an elegant woman who never went out in public without looking very pulled together. Her hair was always well-coiffed, her clothes properly tailored and suited for her petite frame, and her youthful face was stark in its contrast to the date of birth listed on her passport. “If you want to look good ten years from now,” she said, “you’d better get started on that today.” Many years later I realized that my mother’s advice applies to both life and business. The most successful leaders I know are dedicated to achieving results today, but have a keen eye focused on what it will take to build an organization that thrives into the next decade and beyond.
If you pick up any business journal it’s hard to miss that fact that today’s business environment is ripe with disruption in many industries. That phenomenon is demanding a paradigm shift in leadership thinking, and your willingness to embrace it may well determine whether your organization can sustain success into 2026 and all the years that follow. This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the evolution in leadership perspectives that can help your to business not only survive, but thrive, in the disruptive decades ahead. We’ll explore the balance between traditional and evolutionary leadership perspectives as they relate to processes, strategy, skills, contributions, execution and outcomes. At the same time, we’ll focus on how those perspectives influence people, culture, innovation and the passions that can be harnessed to achieve great results. It is my hope that this series stimulates you to think about your own leadership perspectives, about what’s working and what is not. I hope it challenges you to question commonly held beliefs and sort through them to find those that will support your business for long term.
The paradigm shift that I’m talking about is more of a re-balancing of leadership perspectives about what makes an organization hum, and the people within it thrive while delivering results. This re-balancing is going to be increasingly relevant as we experience the influence of next generational expectations in the work environment. Gallup’s CEO, Jim Clifton, spoke at a conference where he reflected on the growing percentage of millennials in the workforce. Clifton noted that this is a generation with high expectations that work should be a place where they feel a great sense of purpose, and jobs should be more than an economic means to an end. Yet, in our own research at Purpose Linked Consulting, we are seeing the same employee expectations expand across generational lines, and more demand from customers for personalization and humanization in the products and services companies provide. Everywhere, workers and customers alike, want more from their interactions with the organization. Those expectations suggest that an evolution in leadership thinking had better be underway if you hope to keep all generations and customers engaged, involved and excited about what your company has to offer.
The critical balance in leadership thinking that will impact organizational effectiveness touches 10 major domains in mindset, as depicted in the following figure:
Let’s take a look at Systems/Processes vs. People/Relationships to begin our journey. We’ll explore the other domains in future articles.
When Systems Win and People Don’t
In most organizations, there is significant attention given to developing systems and processes that allow the business to operate effectively. Those systems and processes span the range of what an organization seeks to accomplish, from how it monitors product output, to the way it gathers customer feedback, to the way employees’ performance is evaluated and rewarded. Systems are essential for accomplishing the work of an organization. After all, without them, we’d have chaos, correct?
While internal systems form the framework for how a business operates, more problems are created by a lack of focus on the people who are impacted by those systems, and the relationships that are crucial to nurture so the systems can work effectively. When that ‘people focus’ is absent, it affects employees and customers alike. Here’s a case in point. I had two interactions with large company systems just recently, in which I was a customer trying to accomplish what I thought was a simple transaction. In the first situation, I made travel arrangements for my son on a popular online website. After carefully checking the reservations before submitting my payment, I was satisfied that it was correct. Yet, my first hint of a problem became apparent when I didn’t receive an itinerary via email, only a receipt for my payment. I promptly called the company to inquire about the itinerary and was assured that it would be in my inbox by the next day.
You already know where I’m going with this story. Not only did the itinerary never show up, it took 12 calls to the company, with multiple transfers to different people in different countries to finally discover that the company had put the air ticket in my name instead of my son’s name. And the plot thickens…. The “System” did not empower anyone I was speaking with to actually fix the problem. They were following the “Process” the company had outlined for them and I was the unfortunate victim of it. Even the most dedicated employee trying to help address my issue was frustratingly powerless to do anything about it. Correcting this problem took (I kid you not) 19 hours on the phone and several conversations with someone at “headquarters”, after which I finally received a ticket for a flight that was already fully booked. Is there any doubt in your mind that this company has lost me as a customer–forever?
In my second recent encounter with the system vs. people dilemma, I attempted to have funds wired from a foreign bank to my domestic account. I followed my bank’s “System” providing the foreign bank with the proper documents, along with very complicated wiring instructions and account numbers. Despite this, the foreign bank finally sent the funds. They were just never received. My domestic bank “thinks” it returned the funds because the foreign bank had listed my last name followed by my first on the account name field. Three dedicated domestic bank employees have been trying for ten days to track down my funds. They are in cyberspace somewhere; so if you happen to find a rogue deposit in your account, please give me a call.
The sad fact is that I suspect my story is not unique. These are examples of failures in leadership thinking, where so much emphasis is placed on following a process, or working within the system, that the customer suffers, and so does the employee trying to service the client. When employees are not empowered to make a difference, and it’s not a pleasant experience for either party.
This kind of thinking won’t work in coming decades because this is an industry shape-shifting time. You must ask yourself if your brand of leadership thinking will allow your business to be a significant player in your industry in ten years. Or, will a white-knuckled attachment to traditional leadership perspectives result in your company’s growing irrelevance on the competitive landscape?
The outcome is yours to determine.
This article by Alaina Love was originally published in SmartBrief on Leadership, March, 2016.