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.

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.

 

 

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?