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Preparing Senior Leadership For The Influence Of The Cultural Shift Of The 21st Century Workplace

08/24/2015 10:03AM

By Glenn Llopis

“A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” Albert Einstein said that, but we don’t need to be geniuses to implement new thinking in business. We only need real leadership that’s innovative and courageous enough to evolve and take action now. That’s how we close the growing opportunity gaps within the three pillars of workplace/workforce, external partnerships and the marketplace/consumer. We must see these opportunities everywhere every day and anticipate the unexpected, sow those opportunities and unleash our passionate pursuits, grow those opportunities with a strategic focus and entrepreneurial spirit, and share opportunities with a generous purpose. That’s how we reinvent leadership for the 21st century and sustain growth.

And it starts by asking one question: What are we solving for?

This is the third of five articles to help you understand what is required to answer the question and compete in today’s fiercely competitive global marketplace across a variety of industries. The articles detail the insights and frontline experiences shared by leaders of the roundtables at my June 2015 Executive Summit, “Preparing U.S. Leadership for the Seismic Cultural Demographic Shift.” The first article featured Earvin “Magic” Johnson, chairman and CEO of Magic Johnson Enterprises, and Mike Fernandez, chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners. Both use their entrepreneurial spirit and passionate pursuits of excellence to fuel business innovation that most U.S. corporations don’t see. That article – and all six in this series – shows how the Cultural Demographic Shift represents a natural evolution of American enterprise and its business models.

Companies that are run in traditional ways are suffering. Top-down, hierarchical, departmentally siloed, purely profit-driven – these are organizations where talent development is an after-thought and leadership is on a path to extinction.

At a time when it’s becoming less about the business defining the individual and more about the individual defining the business, employees at these companies are still made to feel they must check their authentic selves at the door and conform to the company way of doing things. They stay because their marketable skills grow stale and less transferable, not out of any sense of loyalty or opportunity for growth.

Into this scenario comes the influence of the cultural demographic shift, telling us that the 21st century workplace is one where people seek to express their true identity – in a community-minded, boundary-less environment that encourages individuality and creates new types of opportunities for the betterment of a healthier whole.

The cultural demographic shift is fueling a paradigm shift in the workplace where it’s all about recognizing the unique differences in how people think, act and innovate. Diversity of thought creates “constructive disruption” that can influence new ways of thinking, new innovation and new initiatives. When the template that leaders and their companies have followed to drive growth for years begins to change, sustaining any competitive advantage becomes difficult.

A lively roundtable discussion about the 21st century workplace included not just HR executives, but business unit managers who will have a heavy influence on talent and leadership development going forward under the influence of the cultural shift.

We discussed the traditional workplace, very siloed and disconnected, which fuels miscommunication and misunderstanding, and where everyone is impelled to become a specialist of some sort. We asked ourselves, how do we move toward the 21st century workplace of the future, where departments are more interconnected, people talk across the aisle and are more personally branded than ever before? It’s a major transformation in which the workplace is becoming more transient, more mobile, more flexible, and much more diverse.

Lou Mercado, VP, Inventory Management at CVS Health (summit host and a key sponsor) is passionate about developing leaders for the 21st century workplace. He is particularly wary of falling into the trap of becoming a specialist, at a time when serving the cultural demographic shift requires a workforce made up more of generalists.

In explaining his role, Lou says: “It’s our responsibility in inventory management to understand the changing marketplace. So we spend a lot of time talking about the customer and customer-facing issues.”

According to Lou, this whole idea of being a specialist and that’s all you do has to go away if you’re really going to understand the customer. Becoming a generalist means understanding what’s going on in the marketplace, communicating that to current and future leaders, and ensuring you’re addressing – even ahead of – all the changes that are taking place.

“When you’re working in silos, it’s difficult to see the ‘big picture’ changes happening in the workplace and the marketplace,” says Lou. “So how can you know what you need to be doing differently? If you look at that from a purchasing perspective, you’re talking about tens of billions of dollars that we have to manage to ensure customers are getting the products and services they want.

“We look at the numbers daily, sometimes every hour, but the real question is, how can we better understand the consumer? And that means understanding the cultural demographic shift, and making the conversation about things that really matter to them. This is what will enable us to continue to be successful, to grow and compete going forward.”

Citing one example, he said: “If we look at one item in our inventory, coffee, it’s a big deal to the Latino community if you don’t have that product on your shelves. If you run out, you’re not just going to lose that one sale, you’re going to lose that customer – which is one of the most loyal customers you can have – not to mention the family and friends they’re going to tell. And with social media, the message goes out faster and wider.”

He concludes: “From our point of view, we have to understand how our customers behave to support the cultural shift across 7800 stores – and that starts with aligning with those who understand the shift and can help you educate your senior leaders and entire staff across the organization.”

Caroline Wanga, Director, Diversity & Inclusion at Target, is also passionate about the opportunities presented by the cultural demographic shift. So much so that she has come up with the perfect name for the role she currently plays at Target: “cultural architect.”

Explains Caroline: “At each stage of my career, I come up with a new moniker to describe my purpose. Cultural architect fits my interest in constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing cultures. Second to that, the historical function of an architect has had a lot to do with how civilizations are set up and remembered, whether physical or social, so it is the architecture that becomes your legacy.”

So what does this mean to leadership in the 21st century workplace? How can we all become cultural architects for the organizations we serve?

Caroline says there are several components that are core to being a cultural architect, the first of which is self-sacrificial. That is, we do not operate expecting to see the full manifestation of our goals during our careers, even our lifetimes. We can celebrate the small victories along the way, but the sacrifices we make will only help us win the battles, not the war. This is a key theme throughout history that we have to be prepared to accept.

The second core component is an audacious agenda. According to Caroline, this is the unmitigated gall to imagine a better future. It’s the idea of pushing people far beyond the point that you can see actually coming to fruition, because you are working to achieve something so far ahead of the curve.

Finally is the curated community that you build around you. This is a mastermind group, the heart and soul of your operations. They understand and support your goals even when the end-results are nowhere in sight and the doubters start to outnumber the believers.

Beyond these core components, there are two foundational aspects to being a cultural architect. One is business acumen, understanding the stakes that are on the table and delivering the solutions to address the underlying business problems. Second is relationship capital. The key here is making more deposits than withdrawals from the relationship. Are you offering people more in return than you are asking from them?

Finally, there are a couple of differentiators that define the exceptional cultural architect. “We often talk about the need to have courageous conversations, but it’s really about courageous listening,” says Caroline. “Listening to the people that are most crucial to your goals – the cultural shift – because they will get you to the most honest truth of what you need to be working on to reach those goals.”

Caroline counsels that courageous listening is the hardest part of being a cultural architect, because when people disagree with us, we tend to want to shut it down. It makes us uncomfortable, we don’t know how to address it, we start projecting negative thoughts on the other person. But if you can get past all of that and really listen to what they are saying, you will get to the truth of the matter. So indulge in courageous listening even if someone is saying something that seems to go against the grain of what you are trying to drive.

The other differentiator that makes a good cultural architect is intrusive insights, and these are the real courageous conversations, according to Caroline. We have to get past the rhetoric and start having the conversations that, although they may make people uncomfortable, will lead to true insights and revelations.

“The basic problem we are having trying to serve the cultural demographic shift is that we are using a Caucasian baseline and simply applying a second filter of color over it,” explains Caroline. “If you start with the majority as your foundation, using Caucasian as the example, you are fundamentally flawed because you started with a foundation that is not resonant with the multicultural groups that you are trying to serve.

“So instead of building strategies that start with the majority as the base, you have to change the base in order to serve the cultural shift. That is what intrusive insights do, they unearth the core issues and enable you to see through a new lens – instead of forcing others to see through yours.”

Gabriel Torres, a Vice President at T-Mobile, has seen how the workplace is evolving on two fronts: those in the office taking calls from customers and those helping customers face-to-face in a retail environment. This is a workforce that already reflects the customer being served, at least in terms of being more mobile, more connected, and more empowered than ever before.

In particular, it’s the millennial employee who is redefining the 21st century workplace, according to Gabriel. Citing a report from Deloitte this past year, he said that 60% of millennials took their current position because the company had a sense of purpose.

What this means, according to Gabriel, is that: “Millennials are looking for something more meaningful than just a job. In fact, two-thirds of millennials would prefer to start their own business if they had the means to do so. Aspirationally they are entrepreneurs, they are creative people, they feel empowered. As an organization, we have to find ways to cater to these qualities, and that means not following the traditional, structured rules.”

By way of example, Gabriel said that they have replaced the traditional yearly performance review with daily scorecards. This enables them to measure performance on an ongoing basis and gives everybody more visibility into how they are contributing to the success of the organization.

The transformation has taken the focus off of the review process itself and put it where it belongs: on conversations about current performance and expectations going forward that should be taking place on a regular basis between employees and their managers.

How do you make transformations on this scale? According to Gabriel, it has to come from the top: “Senior leaders have to buy into the transformation, and consciously make the decision that you have to listen not just to customers, but the employees who serve those customers. It’s an inverted pyramid that you start to design the organization around, a significant transformation from a workplace perspective but one that will enable you to meet the demands of the cultural demographic shift.”

This is a prime example of what it means that it’s no longer about the business defining the individual, but about the individual defining the business. According to Gabriel, these types of changes really resonate with people.

“It was like a weight was lifted and they could breathe more freely,” he says. “The reaction from people managers was even greater, because you removed the burden of writing all of these performance reviews and replaced it with the greater ability to have meaningful conversations, every day.”

Someone else who knows a lot about driving workplace transformation is Stephanie Neuvirth. “Though we’ve gotten better at collaborating and working in a team-based environment,” she says, “change is always difficult. First you’ve got to break down the walls that are preventing you from communicating effectively. For example, many organizations lack the communication tools that enable online collaboration so that you can coordinate projects and understand priorities from one functional group to another.”

We’re seeing a lot of disruption transforming industries, and where there is disruption there is opportunity to innovate and create more value. We may not always like change, but that is how we will stay in the game and be relevant in the future. So as leaders, asks Stephanie, how do we think more boundary-less and become more change-agile?

The inherent change that is riding the cultural demographic shift is diversity of thought. What that means, according to Stephanie, is getting all of the key stakeholders throughout the organization to weigh in on the issues and be part of the conversation, part of the solution. It means evolving to the point where diversity resource groups become business resource groups, and formulating new best practices with those groups – for example, leaders sponsoring diverse groups of which they are not a part, or using your diverse groups as internal focus groups to understand them better from a leadership perspective.

There are other aspects of the workplace to take into consideration, too. “If you look back five generations of the workforce,” says Stephanie, “you see that each of those generations has been shaped by the unique circumstances of their time: world events, the media, technology and many other variables. It’s easy to forget that each of those generations has a different perspective (a different lens) on what they think is important and why. That’s why it’s important that each generation of each diverse group be included as participating stakeholders.”

How do you begin to tap into the diversity of thought that will lead to the necessary disruption to transform the 21st century workplace? Stephanie says it starts with the 4 most important words: “What do you think?”

Followed by the 3 most important words: “Tell me more.”

Then the 2 most important words: “Thank you.”

The outlines of the 21st century workplace are already taking shape in the kinds of demands that diverse employee populations, up and coming millennials, and more women in senior leadership roles are making on the companies that they work for – and the types of companies they want to create and influence. The emerging 21st century employee wants transparency from their leaders. They want a community environment and a new kind of trust, not based on hierarchy, but on clarity, consistency and contract. They want to devote their talents to an organization that’s Facebook-worthy and where their own personal brands can reinvent and remain relevant. Preparing senior leadership for the influence of the cultural demographic shift on the 21st century workplace will enable all of us to thrive in this new short-term, talent-based, virtual, rapid-paced, trust-demanding world of work we now find ourselves in.

 

The leaders in this article have learned what they are solving for. Have you? Or better yet are you solving for the right things to establish your competitive advantage? Simple questions; hard to answer. But we must in order to establish the leadership America needs. Does your organization embrace this 21st-century leadership? Take the Workplace Cultural Assessment and find out.

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The cultural demographic shift™ in the United States is about the workplace and marketplace telling us that it is becoming less about the business defining the individual and more about the individual defining the business. This is exactly why Hispanics – both entering the workplace in search of the right employer who will allow them to be their authentic selves as well as those professionals who have been battling the gulf between assimilation and authenticity – are now ready to advance as 21st century leaders by activating their immigrant perspective; that is, the influence their cultural values have on the natural ways they think, act and are motivated to perform at work.