How to lead when change is the new normal

Business leaders need to think about the impact of ubiquitous technology on their future employees and the vastly different expectations they will have

I recently gave a talk to senior leaders across the public and private sector about technology and leadership. For lots of C-suite executives that really means just technology - how much of their stuff they can put in the cloud; how to make sure their IT department is keeping up to speed; and issues around data, privacy and security.

So quite often they forget to think about the impact of ubiquitous technology adoption on their future employees and consequently the vastly different expectations they will have both of organisational structure and of leadership.

There is a scene from the 1999 movie The Matrix to demonstrate this point. Morpheus offers Neo the blue pill or the red pill. If he takes the blue pill everything stays the same, and if he takes the red pill he falls through the rabbit hole and sees things like they really are. 

We are at a juncture in society and technology where the system - and government - keep taking the blue pill and are struggling to deal with a new generation who swallowed the red pill years ago.

Referred to by the Polish author Piotr Czerski as “We the web kids”, those born after 1980 have a fundamentally different approach to their predecessors, and by definition their future leaders. They have grown up with and on the web; the internet to them is not something external to reality but an invisible and constantly present layer, intertwined with the physical environment. They don’t “use” the internet; they live on the internet and along it.

They are constantly connected, constantly conversing and have a completely different understanding of the nature of hierarchy. For them it is not hierarchy in itself that is important but hierarchy of contribution. Who you are is reflected not by your title or position in the organisation chart but by your standing in the conversation. 

Loyal to the network

These individuals will not be bound by loyalty to the values of your company - because they know companies, even the biggest ones, are subject to rise and fall, to merger and acquisition - but by loyalty to the values of their network.

Closed leadership looks like the blue pill to them. They will view with suspicion leaders who devise their company strategies closeted away in the boardroom tightly controlling information for fear of leakage. Instead they will seek out those leaders they consider influencers, who may not be at the top of the hierarchy but even at the margins, and they will respect open leadership, something that the Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently described as “the new paradigm for business”.

In the new normal, senior leaders need to get used to the idea of abandoning absolute control. This has profound implications for organisational change

Open leadership is characterised by leaders who are authentic and transparent, who evolve strategies that engender commitment, who use networks to spread these strategies and who engage at all levels - outside as well as inside the organisation - while developing a culture of trusted information sharing.

Peter Hinssen, author of The New Normal, suggests future leaders might want to get ready to explain to such employees why the upgrade of your corporate website is going to cost half a million pounds when they built one for their nephew’s school in a weekend, using open source, for free.

Or why they can’t find anything in your “state of the art” document management system - even though they put it there themselves - when they can go to Google and find anything in less than three seconds. Or why they can book a flight online in two minutes but they have to spend an hour inputting their expenses into your inelegant SAP screens.

The new normal

Welcome to the rules for the new normal. Your future employees will have zero tolerance for digital failure - not when the kit they use is so much better then you are offering at work. This is evidenced even now by HBR, which estimates that 81% of employees are using unauthorised devices on their company networks.

When your office network falls over they will simply head home and will expect to be able to do so, and trusted to be every bit as productive. They understand that things don’t need to be perfect, just good enough and they regard themselves as living in an era of total accountability - say hello to the Wikileaks/Snowden generation. So in the new normal, senior leaders need to get used to the idea of abandoning absolute control.

This has profound implications for organisational change including areas such as traditional communications and marketing. Be prepared to have your every claim challenged, about your products or profits, with employees who have grown up not having to remember facts because that’s what Google is there for - an ever-present truth machine allowing them to test and verify your claims and you in a nanosecond.

Perhaps it’s time for senior leaders to up their game, because when excellence is just a click away, average is over.

Emer Coleman (pictured) is the founder of DSRPTN, a company that provides consultancy services on technology and change. She is also part of TransportAPI, a tech startup supporting innovation in transport.

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