Leading in the Age of Unicorns

Not many years ago, if someone suggested their privately-held tech start up would be valued at $1 billion, analysts would snicker. Today, they’re called “unicorns”—and according to Fortune magazine, there are 174 of them. Most of these companies have sprung up in the last decade, and it’s not just the market that is boosting their valuations. Many of these organizations are benefiting from disruptive technologies, which accelerate their time to market, their response to customers, and their sales cycles.

These unicorns are far more agile than companies of the past. But agility depends not only on cutting edge technology. Digital disruption requires new ways of working. To be competitive, businesses – old and new – are shifting from top-down, command and control hierarchies, which have been prevalent since the turn of the century, to ones which are flatter and leaner. They are ditching performance reviews, re-evaluating management by objectives and re-thinking job specifications. And alongside this overhaul, we need a new style of leadership.

In this environment, where we have far more connectivity than in the past, our leaders need to focus on connection, alignment and engagement. We need to practice new skills and behaviours, or Social Traits. These traits – defined by us at Be Leadership based on direct experience with modern organizations undergoing transformation – surface as those that differentiate leaders today from those in the past. We all have these Social Traits – but not in equal measure. Therefore, if we think about where we are strong and practicing these traits and where we could further focus, it will make us far more impactful employees and leaders.

 

The Social Trait Cards

To support our clients in thinking about this leadership evolution, we have created a deck of Social Trait cards. In physical form, our clients use these cards as part of workshops to reflect on their own social leadership skills and how they might continue to develop themselves and their teams (or organizations) to be even more effective.

Given the popularity of these cards with our clients, we have decided to make them available online in PDF form free of charge. You can download these cards today. We’d love to hear your feedback on your experience using them!

 

How to use the Social Trait Cards:

  1. Download the Social Trait PDF
  2. Print the document and cut out the individual cards.
  3. Looking at the traits represented on each card, consider your own strengths and development areas. Which of these traits do you regularly practice? Which do you see as your strongest attributes? Which could use more attention? Order the cards from strongest to weakest.
  4. Pairing up with someone who knows you, or in silent reflection, consider how you might leverage your strongest traits for greater impact, or develop those which you are not practicing as effectively now. What is one change you can make starting today to become a stronger Social Leader?

 

These cards were developed by Be Leadership Ltd to support individuals in their Social Leadership development. We’re delighted if this tool is valuable for you and would love to hear about your experience using them. The Social Trait PDF is copyrighted material and is meant for your personal use only.  If you’d like to reproduce them, or are interested in using them for your team or organization, please visit www.be-leadership.com to learn more about Be Leadership’s services or contact shannon@be-leadership.com to discuss.

Look at Me: The Business Etiquette of Eye Contact

My phone rang while I was in the queue to pay at the supermarket. It was my husband, and I thought I’d just say hi. It would be quick.

But maybe not quick enough.

When I got to the front I felt the pangs of guilt when I finally looked up and noticed the check-out woman glare as I talked on. Was I really one of those people?

Have you noticed how having mobile phones gives us all liberty to demonstrate horribly anti-social behavior? Whether we are walking along the street texting, oblivious to others, ignoring each other while we play on our phones at the dinner table, or talking on the phone while we pay for our coffees, we are neglecting basic social skills that we learned as children.

According to Ofcom, 93% of British adults own a mobile phone and research tells us that a stunning 84% of us would not go a single day without our device.

There are great benefits to this connectivity, personally and at work. These tools allow us to be more globally networked. They support flexible working. They create the conditions for faster information sharing. They help us be more efficient and productive, able to manage more, and be more informed.

Sadly, though, the same research that shows the positive benefits to this connectivity says that 35% of people use their phone while playing with their children and 32% use their phones while driving their cars. And all of this phone use drastically reduces the amount of eye contact we have with one another. Even Queen Elizabeth apparently misses looking people in the eye.

Eye Contact Rules

While there are varying cultural expectations, and some cultures see a direct gaze as disrespectful, eye contact is an important part of business etiquette in the United States and most of Europe. As a general rule, making appropriate eye contact in these countries signals respect, empathy and inclusion.

While there is debate over the details, the basic rules are relatively simple:

  1. Look at someone when they are speaking to you: Specialists debate if it should be 30-60 percent, 70 percent or something else in between, but what is generally agreed is that you should look at someone more when listening than when you are speaking.
  2. Blink and nod normally: One of the goals of eye contact is to help convey that you are paying attention. By nodding and gesturing appropriately, you help the speaker interpret your eye contact in the way it’s intended. For many people this blinking and nodding comes naturally when actively listening. If you struggle with eye contact, you may need to think more about responding to the speaker with nods and other gestures to indicate you are appropriately engaged.
  3. Don’t stare: Most all cultures agree that extended eye contact is creepy and inappropriate. Look away after a few seconds and then look back again to avoid the sense that you are staring.

My Commitments: Going Back to Basics

If you, like me, feel you’re slipping into bad behaviour with your phone use and have forgotten the art of eye contact, there are steps you can take to make amends. Given my annoyance with those people who use their phones and ignore those around them, I have made some personal commitments to make some small but consistent changes:

  1. No phones at the table: A couple of years ago, my husband and I went to dinner on Valentine’s Day at an amazing local restaurant. At the table next to us there was a couple who each spent the entire evening on their phones, sitting across from each other but not communicating with each other at all. Partially in response to observing this, we made a family commitment to put away phones while we are at the table. I have always felt that the dinner table is a great place to connect as a family at the end of the day, and phones and other devices get in the way of that. By putting away our own phones, we also role model what we expect from our daughter. If you extend this to the workplace, consider putting away your phone for an hour and use lunchtime as an opportunity to connect with your colleagues sitting next to you.
  1. Thank you with a smile: A few months ago I started practicing basic eye contact in stores. When I buy something from someone, I look them in the eye when I order. When I get my change or receipt, I look at them and smile when I say thank you. This seems pretty simple and expected, but when I started deliberately practicing it I realized I really wasn’t doing it consistently before. And, as above, this can be extended to the workplace and to your peers. It is amazing how it changes the level of connection you feel with the people you interact with on a daily basis.
  1. Try videoconferencing: I spend many hours every day in virtual meetings. Until recently nearly all of these were conference calls. I didn’t see the people I was speaking with, but I could hear their voices. This meant I could stand up, walk around, make a cup of tea or even (gasp) check email while we were meeting. Now because I cared about these conversations, I made every effort to focus and want to believe I was successful. But what I missed was eye contact. I didn’t even realize it until I turned on the video, but by seeing the other person’s face, and by focusing on the screen, I increase my active listening and feel a stronger connection to those I’m meeting. Recently I was in a video call with a number of managers and one of them had her camera facing side on, so we saw her profile. She was a very active contributor on the call, but the feedback at the end was that her peers wanted her to move her camera so they could see her properly.

Eye contact. It matters more than you’d expect.

Moving from Connectivity to Connection

I was honored to be asked to speak recently at the Happy Workplaces conference in London, where I shared my thoughts on social leadership and ways leaders can embrace the Social Era.

What is Social Leadership?

If you read most any employee engagement survey out there today, you’ll get the same message: Employees are not engaged at the level companies need them to be. A commonly referenced Gallop study found 70% of US employees are not engaged at work. A similar UK study says that only one third of UK workers are engaged. In fact, in 2014, a study by HR Magazine found that UK employees have some of the lowest engagement levels in the world, with only 37% of workers feeling they were encouraged to be innovative.

There is not just one cause for this. One could blame the economy which is forcing many workers to work harder and more hours, increasing stress and decreasing satisfaction. Or you could say that companies are not rewarding their employees well enough. While there are likely many contributing factors, there is a one long-held belief that is backed by data:

People join companies and leave managers.

Most of us, during our careers, have had a wide range of managers: some good, some bad – many somewhere in between. During my time in multinational corporations, I have had managers who empowered me to do great things, inspired me through clear vision, allowed for risk-taking to support innovation. I have had managers who listened, asked questions and coached me in my decision making.

And I have had those who didn’t.

In today’s business climate, norms are changing and all of us are expecting more from our leadership. Top-down, authoritative styles are no longer adequate. As employees and customers, we expect leaders to be more collaborative, more authentic and more engaged.

Why?

Technology:
Technology is one influencer – as users of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram, we have grown accustomed to a more dynamic, engaging conversation with those around us. Companies started participating to get an edge over their competitors – but as we move further into the 21st century, this type of conversation is becoming expected. It is no longer the differentiator – it is the norm.

Generational Change:
The so-called millennial generation also contributes – this generation demands a flatter, more agile organization and as this generation joins the workforce in droves, they bring new cultural expectations.

Globalization:
Finally we are a more global workforce. More and more companies are working across international boundaries, using technology to communicate and share. Leaders frequently have remote employees, who they meet face-to-face infrequently. These employees need to stay connected and informed, and a more frequent, conversational style of leaderships supports that culture of connection.

Social Leaders are those who are responding successfully to these changes. They are adopting their style to be more conversational. They don’t have the one-way top-down style so prevalent in the past but instead engage with their employees, their customers, and society in new ways. They are creating a culture of openness and connection in their organizations. They are responding to their customers’ needs. They are engaging with government officials to understand the broader society needs and how their organizations can contribute positively.

Sometimes these changes are leveraging technology – Leaders are using tools like blogs and Yammer and Chatter to talk to their employees, ask questions, share best practices and learn from their organizations. They are tweeting and commenting on posts from their customers. But this is not about being tech-savvy: Social behaviours do not have to be dependent on technology at all. Social leaders walk the hallways at work, getting to know their employees more personally, asking questions and understanding the true sentiment in their organizations. They hold roundtables to get the pulse of their organizations at all levels. They participate in what is often called Reverse Mentoring, where they become a mentee of a millennial employee to learn the behaviours and expectations of this employee base first hand.

There is no doubt that this more collaborative style of leadership brings benefits around innovation, productivity and engagement, but these behaviours don’t always come naturally. Leaders may need coaching and support to develop these skills and to learn to connect in new ways.

As you go about your day today, pay attention to the leaders you encounter. How many of them are being social? How are they demonstrating this? And what is the impact on you?

Technology as an Influence

I heard recently that the hierarchical structure in place in most corporations is a post-war phenomenon. Organization design immediately after World War II tended to follow a highly militaristic, tiered model, which has largely remained in place throughout the 20th century. Now, more than 50 years later, these structures are breaking down. Progressive organizations are rethinking their formal org structures and many executives are reconsidering how they lead their teams.

Take companies like Valve Software, the games company that quite famously eliminated managers and flattened their organization. Or Zappos, the online shoe company, which similarly eliminated job titles and their management structure. Even in organizations that are not taking such extreme measures, successful leaders are adopting communication approaches that are far less one-way, top-down and dictatorial.

What is causing this shift? Technology is one major driving force in this change. In their personal lives, people are using tools like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to stay in touch with family and far-away friends – and they see benefits from this social connection. They want this same level of collaboration and communication- or conversation – with their employers and leaders, as well as the companies they purchase from, invest in and frequent. Technology also gives us more flexibility in where and how we work – people are no longer tethered to desks or forced to travel to the office for every meeting. This enables leaders to extend their reach – to directly engage with customers, their broader community and new parts of the organization.

This more collaborative style of leadership brings benefits around innovation, productivity and engagement, but leaders need coaching and support to develop their social skills and behaviours and to learn to connect in new ways. In other words, in order for companies to make this shift, they need truly social leaders at the helm.

 

 

Be Interested, Not Interesting

Let’s face it, we all like to hear our own voices. From quite a young age, we are taught to be experts. We learn how to tell stories, give advice, make decisions, give presentations. This starts in school and is reinforced as we join the workplace and become leaders. But how much time is spent learning how to question? How to really listen?

Real conversation is bi-directional. The very best way to engage others in conversation is to really be interested- which involves really listening to what is being said and then asking questions. Here are just a few ideas for improving your listening and questioning skills:

1) Don’t try to multi-task: We live in a world of distractions. But to really listen, we need to put away all the distractions, put our phones away, turn off the voices in our heads reminding us of the 200 other tasks we have to complete before the end of the day, and really hear what the other person is saying to us.

2) Take notes: Turns out that when you doodled in your notebook margins during class as a teenager, it probably was helping you listen more carefully to your history teacher. Recent research shows that writing things down, even doodling, can help you concentrate.

3) Listen to understand, not reply: When we listen, we often are trying to think of the next clever question we can ask. Instead, we should focus on really understanding what is being said. If we do this, the best questions will come naturally.

4) Repeat back: We can both show the person who’s speaking that we’re listening, and ensure we’re on the right page, but paraphrasing what is being said to us. Often this repetition not only helps us as a listener, it helps the speaker become even clearer on what he or she is communicating.

5) Listen for intent: Sometimes people don’t say what they mean. This might be because they haven’t sorted it out themselves yet, but this can also be because they aren’t yet comfortable articulating it. If you really listen deeply, not only to the specific words being used, but also the body language and the tone, you can understand more.

Be interested, not interesting. Ironically, the less we talk about ourselves and listen to others, the more interesting people think we are.

 

Starting a Conversation

What does social mean to you? Last summer,  I was with work colleagues at a conference in Atlanta and I used it as an opportunity to get some views on this. I asked a whole range of people – Microsoft employees, hotel staff, my 8-year-old daughter – what words came to mind when they heard the word “social.”

Here’s what I learned: Much like concepts like education, Big Data and friendship, social means different things to different people. To some, it conjures up images of parties, fun and dating. Others immediately think of tools: Facebook, Yammer, Instagram. And others think of value that being social brings – collaboration, innovation, sharing, attachment.

I similarly searched online for social references. A wide range of subjects comes back: social work, dating sites, social media, social clubs, Social Security, social enterprises, corporate social responsibility.

In my view, the common denominator across all of these is conversation. None of these social scenarios makes sense without two sides “talking” to each other. Whether it’s a company engaging with non-profits to create greater societal impact, me sharing an image on Facebook and my friend commenting, or two kids chatting at a birthday party, being social demands some form of two-way conversation.

So, what does social mean to you?