What does it mean to be a 21st century leader?

By, Kellie Lauth, Denver Business Journal

For organizations, the definition of success is changing. According to Deloitte’s 2018 Human Capital Trends report, financial success is just one piece of the puzzle. Today, organizations are also evaluated on their impact on society at large.

Success also takes into account how leaders treat their employees, not just their customers and partners. With the parameters of success changing, what it means to be a good leader is changing, too.

The stereotypical, hardened boss of the 1950s is no longer the norm. While the inherent qualities of a leader remain the same, with a focus on integrity, accountability, commitment, decision-making skills and good communication, the expectations we have of the 21st century leader are evolving, just as they are for workplace standards.

Human capital is the most important commodity of any business. Without proper employee engagement, business goals can suffer. This is why we’re seeing an increased emphasis on work-life balance, empathy and equality in the workplace and more collaboration among departments.

What can leadership teams do to instill these qualities? I’ve found that there are four adjustments you can make to prioritize empathy, trust and innovation — all while boosting morale.

1. Leverage your talent

One way to keep employees engaged and passionate about their jobs is to leverage their talents. This may mean encouraging them to grow their skills in areas of interest where they may not have experience. For instance, if the chief marketing officer expressed an interest in graphic design, advise them to look into programs to obtain those skills. Not only do they benefit from gaining another career-ready skill; the organization benefits from the end result.

It also means first tapping into your own resources — your staff — for innovative ideas. Product troubleshooting can benefit from bringing a variety of minds together. Invite the creative team to brainstorm with the product managers. A recent Salesforce report revealed that employees who feel their voice is heard are 4.6 times more likely to perform their best work.

By supporting your colleagues in their endeavors and showing interest in their ideas, you create more loyalty toward your company and brand. Employees then feel more invested in the organization’s success.

2. Elevate your colleagues 

Give credit where it is due. While it may seem obvious, leaders don’t always follow through in recognizing individual accomplishments. It’s not uncommon for individual successes to be touted as team accomplishments. Downplaying key players’ roles can be construed in such a way that makes them feel their work wasn’t valued.

Additionally, leadership teams can offer out-of-the-box training to bring learning opportunities to the organization. Workforce training doesn’t have to be monotonous or boring. Topics like design thinking, mindfulness and social-emotional learning are relevant for all industries and can promote better team communication and innovative changes in the workplace.

By recognizing work when it’s due and investing in professional learning opportunities, leaders show that they value their employees.


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3. Align your teams

Sure, finance departments are separate from creative departments for a reason, but silos are detrimental to the workplace. Not only do they slow workflow and result in convoluted communication, but silos also block potential innovation and creativity.

Create a more collaborative culture by ensuring employees have the communication vehicles to work together. Is half the staff remote? Consider Skype or Slack for easy instant messaging. There are also a number of cloud platforms to choose from, like Google Drive or Box, that let teams work on files together in real time.

Additionally (and circling back to the importance of training), teams that have professional learning experiences together using cross-departmental exercises learn how to best communicate with one another.

4. Demonstrate empathy

One of the best ways an organization can prove its dedication to a healthy workplace culture is by ensuring leadership lives by the culture they want to have. The golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” comes into play here. Leadership does not mean being condescending, demanding and rigid in order to get results. In fact, empathy is proven to drive results and retain employees. BusinessSolver recently shared that 93% of employees they surveyed said they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer.

A CEO’s story of kindness, in which he provided an employee additional sick days with pay and even wrote her a check to help with financial worries, went viral this summer. What touched readers wasn’t that the CEO provided his employee with money; it was that he cared about her well-being. He empathized with the plight of the working parent and offered what many wouldn’t — a paid day off even after sick leave was exhausted.

Leadership is at the root of any organization’s success. Living by example to show compassion and encourage collaboration and innovation creates equity in your human capital. By committing to these four changes in the workplace, leaders become the catalyst for their organization’s growth and development.

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