Leaders should be excited about the opportunity to do things differently.
The changes unfolding in the world’s workplaces today constitute the largest shifts in how we work since the Industrial Revolution. Technology is enabling the automation of tasks at a huge scale – and enabling human work to be done differently. There is lots to be excited about in this. We have the opportunity to create a beautiful future for work. But we need to better understand the shifts that are under way so that we can collectively – in our teams, our organizations, and as societies – realize the potential benefits on offer. Those benefits are significant: greater economic and social inclusion, more meaningful work leading to higher satisfaction and wellbeing, and increased speed and productivity are all possible.
At the heart of the transformation are two key shifts: from jobs to tasks, and from past experience to skills. The foundation of 20th century employment was a legal, social, organizational and emotional concept – the job. In the 21st century, the focus is shifting to the tasks that make up a job. Some are being automated; for others, there are new options for how they are completed, with many treated as a ‘gig’, whether for internal or external team members. In parallel, employees are increasingly being understood in terms of their skills – rather than in terms of their experiences in previous jobs. This is critical, as the skills needed for work are evolving more and more quickly; past experience is an ever-less useful predictor of future performance. These two shifts will change how people work, how people find work, and how leaders lead the organizations of the future.
From jobs to tasks
An organization in which people flow to tasks based on their skills has much less need of the structure of lines and boxes that defined 20th century businesses. Organizations are becoming networks, arranged around the products or services delivered to clients. Culture – shared purpose, values, behaviours and ways of working – is now the DNA that holds organizations together, rather than structure and hierarchy. The move away from hierarchy is being accelerated by the imperative to be responsive to fast-changing customer needs. The result is a new level of empowerment. More dynamic, empowered teams will require high levels of collaboration – that will make the ability to collaborate effectively the critical enabling skill for leaders. The benefit? Workplaces that are empowered, creative, and free of stifling hierarchy.
From prior experience to skills
The second shift will see skills become the currency of employment. Skills are already an increasingly common dataset for HR, replacing past experiences and performance at the core of a person’s record. Technology will increasingly be used to infer the skills people have, and enable the rapid certification of skills by employers: this is being implemented by several edtech platforms.
This has the potential to unlock a new layer of inclusion, as many factors that currently lead to people being marginalized – work history, education, demographics – fade into the background in the face of solid skills data. What people can do will finally eclipse where they have come from as the driver of employment – and organizations stand to benefit hugely from increasing the diversity of their talent. Internal and external talent markets will thrive and become more transparent, as skills become a currency to match with tasks. The benefits to individuals of knowing what skills they need to develop to succeed, and for organizations of knowing what skills people have, will be a considerable engine of prosperity and inclusion.
Leadership’s new reality
Leadership is situational – so this emerging workplace reality is already changing leadership. As organizations move away from structure, the power given by holding a particular position will ebb away. Leaders need to find the authority to lead elsewhere, relying on their ability to inspire with purpose and vision, and their ability to coach and connect the people they lead. In doing that, they need to support physical and mental wellbeing. They need to cultivate psychological safety and create workplaces where people do not feel that they need to hide aspects of themselves, but can bring their whole selves to work. They need to show commitment to diversity and inclusion, including demonstrating that they value cognitive diversity. And they need to show that they have moved beyond hierarchy by encouraging open conversation, the voicing of opposing views and healthy debate.
Letting go of hierarchical power can be daunting. It will take resilience and confidence, continual learning of new skills and approaches, and readiness to evolve plans as reality changes. It takes humility, and a willingness to be vulnerable, to share mistakes and struggles. That is core to 21st-century leadership.
At Unilever, these characteristics – purpose and service, individual agility, and personal mastery – are known as the Inner Game of leadership. The Inner Game is about the being of the leader, and it will determine whether leaders are able to function in this fluid, fast-changing, demanding world. And when we talk about leaders in a networked organization, leadership is much more widely spread across an organization.
Organizations need to learn how to develop leaders’ Inner Game. Acquiring these characteristics takes tailored, immersive experiences. For example, for Unilever, the ability to lead across organizational boundaries is key to the business’s multi-stakeholder model, and to realizing its purpose of making sustainable living commonplace. Unilever recognizes that it needs to develop leaders who can lead across an ecosystem – so it is experimenting with building leaders in an ecosystem, by creating a retreat that brings together leaders from across a variety of organizations, matched with coaches and facilitators from a coalition of development partners. The leaders each bring a challenge they are facing, and use the skills and experience of participants and faculty to help them develop the insights and skills to resolve it.
This leadership will be key to successfully navigating the future of work. The disaggregation of jobs and employment into tasks and skills, and the move from hierarchy to network, offer the possibility of more transparent labour markets and more empowered workplaces. But this will only happen if organizations embrace the change – for example ensuring that its gig employment is not exploitative, ensuring that employees are building future-fit skills, and that managers can provide effective and inspirational leadership in a fluid world. With these in place, a fantastic future is on the horizon.
Tim Munden is former chief learning officer, Unilever. He continues to support Unilever on senior leadership development, while also working with other organizations on leadership development and transformation.
Sharmla Chetty is chief executive officer of Duke Corporate Education.