So what does it mean to be a leader in the digital era? And I mean a leader in all aspects of our lives — at work, in our communities, and in our homes. This is an urgent issue, it’s not a light question.
That’s because research from Gallup shows that amazingly, worldwide, only 13% of people are engaged in their work. And, despite companies’ best efforts to address this problem, that number has barely budged over the past decade. This is also an issue in our homes.
As the parent, I am a distraction, an annoyance when I try to get them to do the things that I want them to do. If you’re not a parent yourself, you likely remember what it was like to be a teen yourself ? and the annoyance you felt when your parents tried to tell you how to drive, or dress, or date.
Hierarchies work great if you manufacture widgets, where the information and expertise you needed to make decisions reside only at the top. But in our modern, digitally-connected world, the efficiency pales against the need for innovation, for change, and for speed. The people who have to make decisions and traces all of the changes reside at the edges and at the bottom of the organization.
In order for those employees who do this, they have to be able to do two-way non-hierarchical conversation through out the organization that they can gather the information they needed to make decisions and take action.
This is not some future, utopian world; it is one that already exists today.
One example of this is the restaurant chain Red Robin has a very digital-savvy employee base, 87% of them are Millennials. They recently introduced a new menu item called the “Pig Out Style Burger”. And one of the things they did was those restaurant services went out and gathered customer feedback, they asked people what do you think of this and they posted the feedbacks on the company’s internal social network — and it wasn’t all good. Executives quickly realized that they had to make a change, and they tapped those employees for suggestions on what to do. The result — employee suggestions went to the test kitchens at headquarters and then back into the field again in less than 30 days — that’s compared to 6-12 months, it would normally have taken. What Red Robin realized is that employee engagement wasn’t about employees talking with each other, it was really about them being heard and that their voices making a difference.
But there’s a big problem. Managers who sit between those executives and front lines absolutely abhor this new openness. That’s because those executives are going around them to talk to their direct reports. And they fight this changes tooth and nail because they feel that they are losing control.
Now those middle managers can be big obstacle to change, but they are also a crucial part of the solution. I’ve done a lot of thinking and researching, around what we can do to address this problem. And I’ve identified three things that we can do.
The first is that we have to create a culture of sharing.
And in hierarchies, layers are designed to filter information up and to push information down. We were taught that to be successful, we had to hoard information. But in a networked organization, just the opposite is true. Managers become facilitators, they accelerate the speed and spread of information through out the organization.
One of the best examples I’ve ever seen of this was on the US Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz. In a radical act of transparency, they invited 16 bloggers to spend 24 hours onboard. I was fortunate to be one of those bloggers.
The captain, once we were on board, encouraged us to talk to anybody, about anything, at any time. He knew that he couldn’t control what his sailors would say to any of us, but he had confidence that they knew what to share and what to keep private. That’s because they had a culture of sharing in place, and they practiced it every single day because they knew that their lives and their mission depended on ability for anybody to speak up at the right time.
How many of you would feel comfortable allowing an outsider to come into your organization and walk around, unescorted, for even one hour? If you have a strong culture of sharing in place, you would feel confident and confortable that this would be fine.
The second thing that organizations can do is to Practice Followership.
If you think about it, the size and quality of your network today determines how much power, influence you have, not your title. Now one of the key things that you can see is that people share with each other develop their relationships.
One manager that I know posted internal video updates about a project that she was working on, she used those updates to engage people throughout the organization. What she was doing is actively building relationships and a network of followers. When it came time to implement that project, she tapped her Followers for volunteers, people then championed that project implementation in their own departments.
Now if middle managers were encouraged to develop their own followership, then if their titles were to change or even disappear, they would nonetheless retain that power, the influence — and the effectiveness. But how do you actually do for us, how do you actually go about and create that, well, I think one of the key things is to think about the third thing: Which is how to you use network to create meaningful decisions.
Now employees and managers are smart: They are NOT going to engage unless they know that their engagement it going to result in the organization moving forward and also themselves. But how do you get them engaged in the first place? The key is to get decision makers involved.
One CEO who I know did this, made the shift by asking employees throughout the organization to make suggestions around what processes, and which technology that the company should eliminate. And they did this on the company’s internal collaboration platform. Now with over 800 suggestions submitted, the CEO then started prioritizing which ones to cut, again with those inputs from employees. When middle managers and executives heard that what is happening, they started to get involved to as well. This was the turning point, the place where the managers realized that those networks are being used getting real work done. Using networks to make critical decisions is the only way that we gain traction.
But just like when you were teens and our parents had to let go in order for us to grow, we need to empower, engage our employees, let go, and trust that they would do the right thing. This is the only way that we as leaders are going to be able to harness thier passion, their energy and their creativity.