As a consultant and coach, I often work with groups of first-time leaders who have risen from middle or senior level managerial positions. One of the questions I get asked quite frequently is about how to develop a single vision within the organization, and what the leader needs to do to make sure that everyone in the organization shares the vision of the leader.
My answer to the question is a ten second video clip of the Windows 7 advert which they have all seen. Everyone from the new-learner, amateur user to the expert, all take credit for developing this piece of software. Whether or not this actually happened is another matter; but the advert has a powerful message for those leaders who think that it is their vision that everyone else will need to share. A vision needs to emerge organically, with the leader playing the role of the chief architect, facilitator, as Bill Gates likes to call himself.
In the good old days, the industrial-age leaders developed vision for their companies and handed it down to their managers and workers to bring the vision to reality. In modern organizations, the leaders are managing an inverse pyramid where the customers are at the base (top of the inverted pyramid), managers / middle management facilitating learning and the CEOs absorbing, assimilating and developing knowledge. In the old style, the leaders, CEOs sat at the apex of the pyramid and were supposedly to 'know' everything, and the lower down the line was the delivery apparatus, and further down the line at the base of the pyramid sat the customers – you consumed whatever you were served. This has radically changed now – leaders are no longer the repository of vital knowledge about the business. Today's CEOs operate with much less knowledge of their customers than what the frontline staff or managers have. They need to listen more, learn more (from people below them), and make sure that they create an environment where learning 'developed' at the bottom reaches the top.
A vision is something the leaders help develop, working with their frontline staff, customers and managers; it is not something they hand down anymore for other to follow. Leaders of today know that knowledge about the business fits across the organization, and the leaders also know that although the strands of knowledge exist across the organization, it is their job to pull these together into a coherent whole. It is their job to bring the strategic thinking that creates the synergy when all the different strands are brought together. Leaders are paid to THINK things your subordinates have not thought through.
I sum up discussion on my 10-seconds video clip with five key messages for first-time leaders:
1. 1 Think of all your staff as 'neurons' in the organization's brain. You need capture all that exist in their brains. You must not ignore a single neuron.
2. Think! Think! Think! Remember, as a leader, you are paid to THINK! They need to see in you a strategic thinker which thoughts are simple and powerful.
3. Present your thoughts in a way that they think your thoughts are their – you helped them articulate it! And these thoughts will form the vision.
4. If you think your people do not understand your thoughts and vision, you are not communicating effectively. The fault is in you.
Things will go wrong, and when they do, ask you people for feedback .
I have worked as an executive and advisor to CEOs in various industries. In either capacity, I have noticed a pattern. One pattern is that high performing companies have a culture of high accountability. Low performing organizations tend to have toxic cultures and confusion. Nevertheless, effective leaders can always transform corporate culture from toxic to high performing. If they do not, they could remain in status quo for eternity. If they create no culture, simple initiatives can become challenging.
In a high performing culture, it is likely leadership has placed high demands on everyone. In that environment, even mediocre employees understand the rules of engagement; raise the bar on performance or exit the company. In those businesses, the top executives are clear about culture. While they may not have all the answers for how to shape it, they understand the connection between sales, operations and customer fulfillment.
For one, sales and operations must be in constant communication. When the sales team makes promises that are not communicated to operations, that disconnect can create unhappy clients. To ensure sales and operations are aligned, the executive team must reinforce the need for feedback loops. This is a way for staff and management to hold one another accountable. There are feedback loops from customer to sales and from sales to operations and leadership. Then there must be feedback from operations to leadership to ensure they have all the tools to effectively do their jobs. And the sales team also needs to know any challenges operations faces when meeting client demands.
This flow of communication is especially important when products or services are customized for individual clients. When there is a communication gap, there is a chance operations will provide a one size fits all product or service.
In fact, in organizations where leadership did not enforce a culture of high accountability, each employee operated in their own world. In other words, staff created corporate culture. The irony is many of the staff members said their organization had a culture of a plague or cancer. In those cultures, employees have been known to say: “if a new employee is hired here, it is a matter of time before they catch the plague the rest of us have. Even if they are a high performer, they will eventually become like the rest of us – cancerous.”
Without direction and guidance from leadership, employees are left to their own devices. In some cases, they notice poor performers and cut off communication with them. Because of that, a disconnect could be created in the feedback loop. Without consistent feedback loops, there is uncertainty about who does what and by when. To make matters worse, leadership may be unaware of the gaps in resources needed to meet client demands.
Even though staff and managers do not set out to create a toxic culture, it happens, in part, because employees are operating with their own interpretation of what a great culture is. And there is no one to hold each person or department accountable. As a result, it can become a culture of blame. In addition, when people see you get paid the same for doing a good job or poor job, some begin to do as little a possible.
With that said, if you are part of the leadership team and have not made a clear declaration for what the corporate culture will be, expect staff to create their own version of culture. If you believe hiring good people with the hope of them shaping culture, be prepared to be disappointed. In most cases, your existing employees will eat them alive. They will educate the new people on, “how things are done around here.”
While the prevailing sentiments are that it is difficult to change culture, it can be done. One solution is to hire an executive coach for the CEO and leadership team. If you have a board of directors, that person should also work with the board. Use the outside person to help you create clarity and change the behaviors of the leaders to behaviors you want the rest of the enterprise to follow. Do not expect a silver bullet to fix everything. On the other hand, a highly committed leadership team that is clear about the need to create an empowering culture will have a greater chance of transforming under performance to high performance.
If you’re hiring and leading a team of freshly-minted college graduates, you may be noticing some differences in their behavior and preferences compared to previous graduates. That’s because they’re from a new generation—we are calling them Second-Wave Millennials(Second-Wavers). The fact is, they still share many of the same traits as their older counterparts (First-Wave Millennials)—raised to feel special, high achieving, tech-savvy, but Second-Wavers (born 1995 – 2004) have some distinct differences that are making managers sit up and take notice.
Who Are Second-Wavers and How Did They Get That Way
Second-Wavers are mostly children of GenXers, as opposed to First-Wavers who were mostly children of Boomers. Both generations were raised with strong parental guidance and involvement in their lives. But while the Boomer parents were perfecting hovering like a helicopter, GenX parents were more likely to be the lawnmower parents who mowed down every obstacle that lay in their child’s path so a clear and clean path toward their future could be followed.
Furthermore, the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 assured that over 70% of Second-Wavers were streaming and chatting from mobile devices before they reached puberty. This brought them the tools to express themselves as individuals and they were exposed to brands that marketed to them as individuals.
This combination of attachment parenting, digital sophistication toward the individual, and placing more value on the importance of social and emotional learning as well as a broad cultural shift toward making a difference in people’s lives has dramatically shifted these Second-Wavers’ priorities.
The Three P’s of Second-Wave Leadership
So, how do leaders practically manage this new batch of workers in the workplace, and what do these Second-Wavers need from an employer? As a GenXer myself, I like to keep things simple and make my recommendations memorable. So, for these Second-Wavers, I’d recommend focusing on the three P’s: Personal Attention, Professional Development, and Purpose.
From Facebook pages to Twitter handles to Instagram posts, Second-Wavers have always had the tools to create and curate their own brand. Yes, like a snowflake, they are their own person—unique and special. Ironically, they are extremely collaborative, but they still require hands-on individualized attention when it comes to their career path and goals. Consulting firm PwC has a unique approach to this issue. They assign every new hire with a team of three different mentor types: An on-boarding ambassador—who gets you up to speed on how things work at the firm, a Relationship Leader—who provides direction in your career, and finally, a Career Coach, who is there to manage you in the moment—they call it managing real-time, or play-by-play. Companies would be well served by following PwC’s lead.
This is a big one. From a very early age, Second-Wavers were conditioned to plan for their future and gaining skills has always been a priority. After all, in video games, they get badges, gold stars, and rewards for getting to the next level! They are hungry for professional development, and in fact, according to Deloitte, the #1 reason they would leave a company is because of lack of professional development.In my experience, the development they need most is in soft skills, not hard skills. Soft skills like critical thinking, communication, and social interaction—things we older generations take for granted, are simply not taught in college or acculturated at home. 8+ hours of screen time a day has an effect on in-person interaction, and believe it or not, this is area of growth for these Second-Wavers.
After observing focus groups of Second-Wavers, one thing really stands out: They want to know not just what to do and how to do it, but why. I like to say that ‘why’ is the new ‘what’ for Second-Wavers. This is an extremely purpose-driven generation—one that we have not seen since the GI or Greatest Generation who worked on mission-driven projects like saving the world from a fascist scourge. Research consistently shows that this generation is more mindful of the products they buy and services they use gives back to the community. Money is important to them for sure (especially with their high debt load), but mission is still #1.
And not only do they want their work to make a difference to the world, they want to know how their work fits into the bigger workflow picture. For example, if they are updating a database, they want to know—where does their update go? Who uses it next? How does this contribute overall to the company’s mission?
Finally, They’re Worth The Investment
My last point about Second-Wavers is that they bring skills to the workplaces that have been lost by older generations. From an early age, they’ve been immersed in social and emotional learning techniques that, when used properly, can really bring people together into a more effective team dynamic. But you have to give them a chance. They’re smart (best educated generation is US history), they’re techno-gurus who have solutions you have not even thought of, and they are committed and loyal… as long as you are committed and loyal to them.
Part of being a great leader is adapting to change. Second-Wavers represent a new shift in behaviors and priorities, so this is a good time to press the reset button on how you lead.
Warren Wright is author of Second-Wave Millennials: Tapping the Potential of America’s Youth. He is Founder and CEO of Second Wave Learning, a talent development company that helps companies attract and retain newly-hired Millennials in the workplace.