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Excerpt: Leadership—Transforming from Commander to Coach

497 - Business ExpressBy Sophie Wade

Excerpted from Chapter 14 – Leadership: Transitioning from Commander to Coach, Empathy Works: The Key to Competitive Advantage in the New Era of Work

There has been significant recent upheaval in the business world—notably to the pace of marketplace developments, the nature of operating environments, and the choices of work arrangement. How we need to lead has to change in tandem—it is now less top down and hands off than lean in, share more, and open up, as we all figure out the most effective way to enable each of our organizations to succeed and grow.

New digitized business operations mean augmented customer connectivity, real-time feedback loops, and additional instantaneous channels of communication. As a result, the amount and speed of data being received from the marketplace has increased in parallel with customers’ expectations that products and services will be updated quickly, therefore becoming a competitive necessity.

It simply takes too long to wait for data from the frontlines to be contextualized and reported up to management or for insights to percolate up before committees update strategies for dissemination. Drawing on the collective brain power of an organization is at minimum desirable, if not essential, these days, especially when soliciting updates and inputs from workers who are closest to your customers.

An updated approach from leaders absorbs the essential elements of empathy in order to delegate more to direct reports who are, in turn, pushing more accountability down and out to the edges of their organizations. Practicing empathy, you are in a stronger position to decide how tasks should be allocated, what your team members are capable of, how they each handle pressure, what they are motivated by, what oversight is optimal for each person, what recognition individuals respond to, and how to coach them constructively.

Taking advantage of these liminal times is important if you are purposefully going to make the transformation necessary to update working practices fully at your company, within your division, department, or team. Infuse empathy into all your outward-facing and inward-focused interactions, including key areas of leadership such as:

Purpose: To gain and retain loyal customers, your leadership starts with enabling customers to understand and connect with thepurpose of your business all along the Customer Journey. Similarly, articulate your organization’s purpose and engage employees empathetically by connecting them with the meaning of their work.

Culture: Leaders are stewards of the corporate culture and ensure that the values are clearly understood and reinforced daily across the company.These values foster trust, reaffirm employees’ value, promote active participation in the organization, and manifest behavior for everyone to mirror in all their interactions. Culture is actively lived, or it languishes.

Trust: Trust is essential for workers to feel psychological safety and a sense of belonging. Trust is necessary for employees to be comfortable taking innovative risks. That trust starts with you.Relationships without trust are tenuous, directions are doubted, commitment is of convenience, and results are negatively impacted.

Control:New leadership styles are more about oversight than orders, promoting initiative rather than giving instruction, relying on empathy to recognize effective ways to influence and manage their teams.

Mindset: Leaders need a learning attitude or “student mindset” for managing through a significant transformation. You do not have all the answers, and the answers you have cannot get you very far, and that is ok.

Transparency: When you communicate openly about what is going on, you are both reflecting the corporate tenets and making sure people feel included and valued wherever they are working.

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Process: Operational elements need to be adaptable, and employees can usefully apply their different points of view regarding how to maximize results. Guiding rather than determining their choices, you can help them channel their energies, as well as create clear demarcations at the beginning and end of work periods to prevent blurring and reduce burnouts.

Skills: Your focus on the current and updated skills inventory in your company, division, or team is paramount, using empathy to match and move people successfully around your organization as well as overcome barriers to reskilling.

Careers: Without the worn, self-directing linear tracks of earlier careers, your team members need your proactiveand empathetic involvement to inform and guide their skills development so that it is aligned with various possible career pathways.

Performance:The shift to empathy-infused coaching approaches formalizes regular, mutually beneficial discussions with each of your reports. Fifteen minutes each week can often suffice for ongoing trust- and confidence-building, useful course-correction, sharing tips, gathering strengths and skills intelligence, hearing frontline anecdotes, and conveying executive updates.

Recognition: Coaching more than commanding yields the best relationships and results, in part because, as a leader, you can encourage and praise while sharing helpful critique. Practicing empathy is essential for recognizing how your words are being received; what timing, tone, and approach works best with each person; and what the other person is interpreting.

Risk Appetite: At the current pace, evaluating and taking calculated risks is necessary, which may sometimes be nerve-racking. You can mitigate some of the worry you sense is distracting to employees by clarifying what the boundaries and benchmarks of “reasonable risk” are in different areas and relating to particular projects, which are accompanied with support, not penalty.

Support: Individualized attention is paramount for you as a leader and successful manager in the new working environments. Being an inclusive, empathetic leader means managing each person on an equitable basis wherever they are working so they have appropriate access to resources, technical support, and training.

Tools: Technology is driving our new dynamic environments by providing us with artificial intelligence and machine-learning capabilities together with more computing and processing power. You can leverage significant advantage if you are gathering, analyzing, and synthesizing—through the lenses of customers’ and employees’ experiences—timely data that provides your business with critical competitive intelligence.

Model: Whatever you do, walk your talk! Everyone within your radius of influence will follow your lead or mimic your behavior if you do what you say, showing you mean—and believe—what you say.

What if you do not address these issues? Your job is a lot harder. Getting the results you want may often feel like squeezing water from a stone. Employee engagement stays low, miscommunications and misunderstandings are high, collaboration is impaired, and conflict is common, with confusion about responsibilities ending with finger-pointing destroying the cohesion of any team. Productivity is severely hampered. Does that sound like one of the teams you know?

The more you can focus empathetically in your leadership role on what each person needs and adjust as much as reasonably possible for them individually, while compromising as needed across the group, the more easily you will be able to achieve all your goals and specific objectives.

Sophie Wade is a work futurist, international keynote speaker, author, and authority on Future-of-Work issues. She is the host of the widely popular Transforming Work podcast and over 450,000 learners have taken her four LinkedIn courses which cover empathy, Future-of-Work skills, and Gen Z. Sophie is the Founder and Workforce Innovation Specialist at Flexcel Network, a Future-of-Work consultancy. Sophie’s executive advisory work and transformative workshops help companies adapt and update their work environments and attract, engage, and retain their multigenerational and distributed talent. She helps corporations maximize the benefits and minimize the disruption in their transition to talent-focused, digitalized work environments.

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