Leadership in the Digital Age


The world is changing at a faster rate than we’ve seen in many years – probably not since the industrial revolution. In more recent times, this change has brought about a new way of managing and leading within companies.

The internet companies that blossomed from the dotcom boom in the late 90s introduced us to ping pong tables, bean bags and nap rooms as the new norm in office culture. As these companies developed and grew in size, so came a new approach to leadership that shook traditionalists to the core. Gone were the conventional models – autocratic, servant, transactional – and in came a more laissez-faire approach, with flatter structures, casual dress and transparency at the heart of their value

Others have embraced the technological advances that have encouraged remote working, allowing such firms to leverage overseas talent without the need to overcome complex immigration hurdles or a reluctance for talent to move away from their home base. Companies such as Buffer, the social media management application, have recently done away with an office completely, and now have their 85 (approx.) staff working from 50+ locations around the world. Buffer’s main rival, and arguably the market leader, operate their Singapore base (although now much reduced) out of a co-working space.

Co-working has grown rapidly to an estimated 7.800 global locations with over 500,000 members, and offers everyone from the budding entrepreneur to the more established company a more social way of working. Solopreneurs utilize the hot desks available, whilst the small to medium-sized companies usually rent the dedicated office space that still allows them to benefit from the communal, social nature the spaces have to offer.

The future-ready leader needs to be one who is comfortable in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world that we find ourselves in. Those who are uncomfortable with change will soon find themselves left behind, such is the incessant need for increases in innovation and efficiency. DBS Bank, regularly awarded the Safest Bank in Asia and 11th globally, is a leading force in digitalising their workforce, opening up a new innovation lab and hosting hackathons and agile methodology workshops. In 2015 alone, over 2,000 of their employees benefited from this new approach to training, amidst nearly 15,000 training sessions across the wider group.

So, with this change, what does it mean for the way leaders operate, or should be operating? Is there actually a need for a change?

A key change that technology firms have seen is flatter management structures, usually with the intention to avoid the bureaucracy that slows down decision making and execution. Some have taken it to the extremes with models such as Holacracy (think Zappos), which aims to do away with traditional management roles and increase self-management, but most of the early pioneers have subsequently pared this back to a blended model that reduces unnecessary layers, but reintroduces smaller elements of the management chain.

This brings about the question of whether the traditional leadership styles are relevant anymore, and if they still are, in what industries are they the optimum model? I’ve seen tech companies function exceptionally well with only a few layers between line worker and CEO, but would that work in a manufacturing company, with a large factory production division? That said, one of our clients – a leading global building materials supplier – have recently reconfigured their management chain to be exactly like this. It’s still too early days to determine its success but I see it as a sign of the times.

The traditional model, composing of a Christmas tree or diamond shaped org chart, has the CEO at the top and many line/production workers at the bottom. In the middle, are 3-10 different layers or branches that employees (hopefully) aspire to climb. This model, which has been in place for over 100 years, and to be honest has changed very little in that time, was designed to ensure that someone is overseeing someone else’s work, and that they have a manageable number of people to lead. Is that really a bad thing? No, I think not. It’s not cool or modern to say so – it’s much trendier to talk about laissez-faire or the aforementioned Holacracy – but business shouldn’t be about image; it’s about impact, be it financial or social.

The unfortunate truth is that too many workers are unable to self-motivate and self-lead. Left to their own devices, they’ll get distracted by social media, friends or anything else that delays them filling in that dreaded coloured spreadsheet. Is it all their own fault? Not really. In many ways, they are a victim of a society that isn’t progressing as fast as the technology that will soon replace them. Even though a sense of belonging, or buying into a company’s mission, is still one of the biggest intrinsic motivators, the majority of the working population are in jobs that don’t inspire them. If you aren’t inspired or intrinsically motivated by your work, what hope do you have of performing at your best with no supervision?

There are many critically important jobs that I think you’d struggle to find inspiring. Not every job can be helping someone, or working on the world’s most innovative products. Eventually technology will eliminate the more routine, process-driven jobs (and many others) but not for a while. In the meantime, how do leaders in those industries get the best out of their workplace. Besides pay and working conditions, the same leadership fundamentals apply as they would at corporate HQ.

Treat your employees as people. People that matter.

It will take a generation to really change the face of the workforce. There are many companies that are thriving in environments where you aren’t stuck at your cubicle all day, where your boss isn’t overseeing everything you do (if you have a boss), and where you are trusted and empowered to get on with your work in a way that works best for you (and of course, your customers). It takes guts for a CEO to completely change the culture and direction of their company. Good people will feel too disrupted, upset by the change in status quo, and there’s a very good chance you’ll lose some of your top performers. But, are they the people who will help you survive, and indeed thrive, in the modern economy? In this digital age?

No-one knows exactly how leadership will look in the future, but I think we’ll return back to an equilibrium across the industries. The high-flying tech firms will scale back their innovative policies to become a little more ‘corporate’ (think Google), and the more traditional firms will have to drag themselves into the 21st century and change their ways. There will always be outliers; those who excel from being at the height of leadership innovation and those who do equally as well using more traditional methods. The difference will lie in the firms who put the interests of their employees before the latest corporate trends, and aren’t afraid to stand out from the pack.

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