The role of leaders in the ‘learning era’

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne March 16, 2020
Old-style command and control leadership is out. Tania Luna at LifeLabs Learning explains the new rules of leadership, where managers act as an ‘invisible support system’ rather than task masters.

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(Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay )

The rulebook for leadership is being rewritten as digitization, the stellar pace of change and changing employee expectations take effect. Fundamentally, according to Tania Luna, co-CEO of leadership development firm, LifeLabs Learning, we’ve shifted from the Knowledge era, where people with knowledge sit in a position of authority and pass down that information to others, into the Learning era, where the rules are rather different.

It’s not about what you know, but how you learn. Leadership is no longer about everyone sitting and waiting for a leader to give them instructions and information, it’s really about a lot of people working in tandem, needing to make really fast, autonomous, complex decisions and then unmake them, and make new ones. And so with that pace, with that complexity, with that lack of access to information, the leader’s job really changes dramatically.

We’re seeing now, increasingly, the most effective teams have the least dependency on leaders. The leaders become this sort of invisible support system to help teams communicate, collaborate, act, learn and perform as quickly and independently as possible.

This shift in responsibilities and skills means that the word ‘manager’ itself needs an upgrade. Luna says that in LifeLabs Learning:

 We are removing aspects of the manager role that slow things down, the bottlenecks that create an over-dependence on giving authority to one individual, while actually keeping the aspects of management that are incredibly important - things like providing emotional support, providing development, creating accountability. In that sense, I think the word ‘manager’ is pretty outdated - who’s managing?

Organizations that have reimagined or redefined the role of the manager as leaders who develop and support others is a really powerful way to catalyse growth. These managers are “hotspots” in organizations, who are able to support people in their micro communities.

LifeLabs uses the phrase role sponsors internally. A sponsor is someone who is dedicated to an employees development, giving them access and visibility and support within the organization.They sit alongside project sponsors, who are temporary team leaders.

More generally, Luna says the most common word used in place of manager is team lead. Others favor the word mentor, although Luna cautions that this may be a little misleading if part of their role involves some sort of assessment of their team members.

Whatever the terminology, the message is that leadership is no longer a command and control affair. Luna explains:

I think there’s going to be more distributed leadership. I think there’s going to be more rotating leadership, even in something as small as who leads team meetings. 

Within LifeLabs, each of the 50 employees takes turns at running company-wide meetings in an effort to try to rotate who has the most visibility and whose voice is heard the most as much as possible.

The other thing we’re seeing more and more is self-leadership...We’re seeing individuals who experience the most success in the workplace are those who take responsibility for their own growth and for their own success, which means things like instead of waiting for feedback to come to them, asking for feedback; instead of hoping someone delegates something well, asking questions to extract the information they need; setting their own goals and creating their own development plan.

The role of culture

Effective leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s an interplay between company culture and individuals.

It’s like thinking about your genes versus your environment. Your genes are the skills, but you need the environment to help accelerate and leverage those skills to do their best work. Sometimes you might have the most wonderful environment, so even if you’re not good at something the culture can handle it, because the norms of the organization will shape your habits.

The problem is that for a long time, people mistakenly viewed culture as synonymous with fun and engagement and having a good time, which made it hard to prioritize and take seriously.

That’s not what culture is. Culture is increasingly important in times of complexity and rapid change because you can’t just depend on leaders to tell you what to do, culture shapes behavior and helps everyone make similar actions independently, without having to check with others over and over or waiting for someone to give instruction. A really healthy culture is one where you’ll attract the right people and retain the right people.

Culture should be looked as “the mechanism that helps people take action to achieve the organization’s goal,” adds Luna.

If companies want high-performing managers then they need to not only be explicit about what that means but to reward those explicit behaviors. As Luna says:

It becomes really hard to hold someone accountable or expect someone to do things like coach and give feedback and check in on inclusion and engagement if that is not actually part of performance criteria as much as hitting revenue targets. I think the first thing organizations can do is recognize how critical those responsibilities are.

Organizations also need to provide tools for feedback on managers in a way they would for any technical skill and to be explicit about what they mean by good leadership.

It’s not enough to just do it, you have to know that you are doing it well...I think where we need to progress in the field of leadership is to start talking about really concrete skills and habits and processes. So it’s not just about saying ‘your job is to motivate people’, but looking into what we call behavioral units and talk about what are the skills and habits of individuals that are seen as motivating.

So think about leadership as a process, the way you would with a hard skill or even something like yoga. It’s not just something you read about once, but something you spend a lifetime honing your craft.

Practice is clearly important, but that practice needs feedback to ensure it is being done correctly. The oft-quoted sporting aphorism sums it up perfectly for Luna: 

Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.

What makes an effective manager?

LifeLabs has identified four main traits of highly effective versus average managers. 

First up is coaching skills, which is really about leading with questions rather than instruction. This is followed by feedback, prioritization, and leading really effective one-on-one conversations.

Luna says they actively discourage any other skills training until this solid foundation is dug in. If you try and teach things like adaptability and creativity - identified as critical skills for today’s employees and managers - they simply won’t stick unless these four foundations are embedded first.

Moreover, with those skills in place, things like conflict resolution, creative problem solving skills may not require specialist training, as the key foundation skills tip over naturally into better problem solving, negotiating and so on.

As a whole, Luna is confident that although good leadership has sometimes been in short supply, there are signs that it is becoming more commonplace.

Companies have in some ways less power than they had before, there’s more of a scarcity of talent out there and more transparency around company culture through companies like Glassdoor, so employees are becoming more of a customer really. Companies are struggling to recruit and retain, so I think that’s creating more of a landscape for an employee- centric type of experience.

This emphasis on employee experience means that it’s now not unusual to see very high scores when employees rate managers in terms of effectiveness.

So, the influence of the digital workplace appears to extend far beyond technology itself and potentially has a positive effect on leadership styles and culture.

My take

It’s interesting to see how the effects of digitization (although not in isolation) is changing the fabric of the workplace in all kinds of ways. Managers and leaders are as important as ever, but what that role entails, and our expectations about what managers should be responsible, is changing rapidly.

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