The last ten years have seen the workplace evolve in many interesting ways. Fewer suits and ties, more autonomy, hierarchical shifts, flexible working hours, and the ability to collaborate remotely thanks to technology.
What the next ten years will look like is anyone’s guess.
What we do know is that leadership is undergoing something of a crisis – nearly one-third of employees don’t trust management.
What we also know is that by 2020, most organisations will have four to five generations working side by side. That’s a lot of fundamental differences in values, experiences and capabilities to unite.
Therefore, we can expect some dramatic changes to leadership culture.
In the words of marketing savant, Seth Godin, “The only thing that changes the world is culture. It always has, that’s the only thing — not money, not government, but culture”.
So we went and visited four leading organisations to speak to their leaders about new leadership cultures that they’re shaping for the future: Heather Geary, Oceania Diversity & Inclusion Leader at EY, Meaghan Wolf, Business Leader, and Kelli McCosker, General Manager Finance at Flight Centre, Jason Fischer, VP of Engineering at ELMO, and James Telfer, Associate Director, Recruitment at Cognizant.
What does tomorrow’s great workplace leader look like?
For Kelli McCosker at Flight Centre Travel Group, a workplace leader must be well-prepared to take on a wide range of responsibilities. They must be “someone that goes far beyond managing their discipline or area” who can play a role across the business “in both setting strategy, modelling the culture and expected behaviours, and leading and developing people”.
Her colleague, Meaghan Wolf, believes that the next line of leaders need to display transformational leadership. They should be “someone invested and highly motivated to consistently influence and inspire the people around them. Being a leader is a great responsibility and requires focus and dedication to a cause that is greater, but not excluding, personal goals”.
The essential qualities of great leadership
Unsurprisingly, soft skills have been identified as the most important aspect in order to become a great leader.
After all, you can always teach someone management skills but it’s a lot harder to teach empathy.
Fischer at ELMO believes that a good leader is someone who can adapt to any situation, who actively listens before talking, and who can understand what people go through and be there to provide support and motivation for the entire journey. Above all, he believes that a good leader is “someone who can challenge their team members in a positive way and help them grow as individuals and as a team”.
For Geary at EY, workplaces are more diverse than ever before and a great leader should use this as an opportunity to bring other perspectives to the table, “whether it comes through different life experiences, different worldviews, different values or different abilities”.
Integrate or lead from the top-down?
All leaders must face the inevitable and tricky dilemma of choosing whether to take a broader position in order to plan and strategise or to operate at ground level in order to better understand their teams.
Both Wolf and Fischer agree that the most effective leaders must strike the right balance between the two.
For Wolf, a leader must gain a real-life understanding of the people they lead by spending time ‘in the trenches’. This way, she explains, “you get a true representation of the challenges and motivations of a team”. On the other hand, leaders must also find “enough time to dream, create and strategise”.
She adds, “A broader top-down view gives a great opportunity to plan and create, however, implementing an idea without consultation, or an understanding of how the people could be impacted from their point of view can create a lot of additional communication”.
Fischer also sees merit in a top-down approach: “It’s important for a leader to be able to show the vision and strategy of what the team is striving towards”. However, he favours a more integrated approach. This approach allows leaders to know their team on a more personal level and understand how to align team member goals with the company goals “to enable them to be more engaged in their day-to-day”.
Great leadership fosters great workplace cultures
A workplace leader is instrumental in shaping the fundamental culture of its people. Great leadership at Cognizant has created a work environment characterised by an open and collaborative communication style. As a result, according to Telfer, “Managers and staff are able to engage with each other without fear of ‘getting it wrong’ or ‘saying the wrong thing’”.
For Telfer, teams that are comfortable to share opinions openly, particularly in problem-solving scenarios, “can lead to innovative outcomes”.
At ELMO, great leadership has shaped a safe space where there is zero blame. As Fischer explains, “We all take responsibility for what we do, but we are always looking at learning and understanding more about each other and our customers so that we can better meet everyone’s needs. In short, a culture of blameless, open learning where people are proactive and capable of checking their ego at the door”.
The problems facing workplace leadership certainly aren’t easy. Initiatives are already underway to address gender inequality in leadership roles. Now it’s up to Australia’s best to define the next evolution of workplace leadership that can win the hearts and minds of employees who come from very different eras, backgrounds and values.
Are you looking to join a workplace culture nurtured by world-class leaders? Explore job opportunities at these top companies: