The professional landscape is transforming, and the only way to maintain competitive advantage is to maximize the unique skills of your workforce. In Humanity Works: Merging Technologies and People for the Workforce of the Future, consultant and futurist Alexandra Levit provides a guide to making the most of the human traits of creativity, judgment, problem solving and interpersonal sensitivity.
If you’ve ever wondered what the ‘robot takeover’ will look like, how talent and machines can work side by side and how you can make organizational structures more agile and innovation focused, you will be interested in Alexandra’s work. I recently spoke with her about her research and observations.
“Enlightened 21st-century leaders will abandon command-and-control to diplomatically govern their organizations.” -Alexandra Levit
You cover some sweeping trends. Would you share a few of the macro themes that are the backdrop of your work?
The book addresses a few essential questions: In a world where robots can do more and more, where does that leave us as humans? How will leaders build integrated human teams that can compete in a business world with constant evolutions and disruptions while remaining productive, marketable and sane? We explore the demographics, technological advances, work structures, organizational priorities, leadership models, individual career paths and human roles coming to fruition in the immediate years to come.
“The speed with which information populates the online world means with one wrong move, your organization’s reputation could be in jeopardy.” -Alexandra Levit
What is the Why Generation? What qualities and traits distinguish it?
The Why Generation is my term for Generations Y and Z, which include basically everyone under 40 today. Collectively, I call them the Why Generation because they want to know the reason behind everything. And this is exactly how we reared them. A lot of older-generation folks in management roles often perceive this as disrespect or insubordination, but it’s actually not. Young people want to know the reason why so that they can fully understand what they are being asked to do, and even more than that, so they can see if there is a way they can improve the process. They want to bring their own unique, special, and important contribution to the success of the plan, whatever it may be. They want to be engaged; they want their work to be relevant and mean something. They are not being rebellious when they ask why; they really want to know. They want purpose, and they will perform to the expectations we set for them (whether high or low). We have to answer the big question they are always asking in one way or another: why?
They place great importance on their personal values, which are often characterized by social and environmental activism. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves, and once they buy into a cause, they’re committed. Every decision they make is influenced to some extent by how it affects their desired lifestyle.
They’ve brought a fresh perspective to the working world. Both the Millennials and Generation Z want their work to be about more than the paycheck. They prioritize a flexible working environment that allows them to work from home and/or work nontraditional hours, and many companies are taking these preferences into consideration. They also want to rethink the ways things have always been done to create new processes to complete the work more efficiently.
They’re also digital natives who have grown up surrounded by technology. It’s their norm to have multiple screens going as they maximize their digital experience. Because they believe they’re unique, special, and important, they are constantly looking for ways to tell their story on the vast array of social media options. They also communicate differently, much more briefly than older folks are used to.
Only 11 per cent of business leaders perceive college graduates to be ready for work, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Here is how this often works in an office environment:
First, the person has a firm agenda that precludes listening. She lays out her points with an intent to control the conversation, but sabotages that desire for control by talking over others. Almost immediately, other people shut her out. They want to reach for the smartphone, grab a cookie—basically do anything that gets them away from her noise. Politicians, CEOs, and even managers sabotage themselves all the time this way. They used their vested power to command attention, but never truly control the conversation.
Contrast that with someone who is spectacular at controlling the conversation.
SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell comes into interviews with an engaging conversational tone. As she answers questions, she finds ways to work in messages of vision, safety, quality, and so on that inspire a sense of trust in SpaceX technology—it’s easy to find yourself cheering her, and the company, on to greater heights (pun intended). Part of her success in conveying these messages is that she weaves in timelines, expertise of the team, descriptions of specific events, and a sense of location.
“We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.” -Carl Sagan
To be successful today, leaders must develop relationships based on openness and trust. Leaders can no longer rely on formal hierarchical structures and processes. Instead, the new era of leadership is based on service, on teamwork, and even on humility.
To get us started, compare and contrast traditional leadership with “humble leadership.”
We see two common myths surrounding “traditional leadership” that humble leadership calls into question. First is the heroic “I alone” myth that suggests that the greatest leaders rise to the top on their own individual brilliance. By contrast, humble leadership proposes that leadership occurs throughout an organization, at all levels and in all roles, and reaches its pinnacles of success when groups drive better decisions and achieve better outcomes.
The second myth is that organizations are machines, directed with command and control, most successful when they can be described as a “well-oiled machine.” Humble leadership proposes that this is at best an antiquated view of organizations. Instead we think of organizations as living systems capable of cooperative resource sharing and adaptation better suited to the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous (VUCA) world we are only now starting to accept.
“Humble means accepting that no individual can know more or make better decisions than any group at work.”
What do most people get wrong when they think of humble leadership?
Humble leadership is not about humility in the individual or religious sense. Humble means accepting that no individual can know more or make better decisions than any group at work. Humble means I go to work embracing the fact that I do not have all the answers and will do a better job by asking for help and helping others in the group to arrive at the best decisions. In Ed Schein’s Humble Leadership series, he refers to this framing of humility as “here and now humility.”
We see leadership as a verb not an entitlement. The foundational idea is that humble leadership requires the formation of personal relationships (at work and home) that allow two people or a group to achieve more than the sum of their individual outputs.
In Humble Consulting and Humble Leadership, a human relationship model is presented that describes human relationships in four levels. Level 1 is domination and exploitation (think prison guards or shop floor bosses in a sweatshop). Level 1 is transactional role-to-role interaction, cordial but typified by “professional distance.” Level 2 is a cooperative empathic connection between two whole persons formed by inquiring and sharing information. A Level 2 relationship is based upon, and continually reinforces, openness and trust. We refer to the process of creating Level 2 relationships as “personization.” Level 3 adds intimacy to openness and trust. This Level 3 ability to “finish each other’s sentences” is typically associated with lovers more than co-workers, though we do see Level 3 relationships in the highest performing teams (e.g. SEAL teams, orchestras, improv performers, and so on).
The essence of humble leadership is building Level 2 relationships with the people around you in order to improve and maximize information flow (openness) and cooperative work (trust). With these Level 2 relationships, anyone can arrive at work with here-and-now humility, knowing that he or she does not have all the answers, and confident that with inquiry and curiosity, better answers and outcomes will result.