Thoughts On Leadership & The Changing Workforce

A family construction project is a great exercise in differing leadership styles!

I’ve been having a few thoughts on different leadership styles recently, after sharing conversations with family, friends and colleagues over the last month or so.  The main stream media in New Zealand continues to profile opinion articles on US President Donald Trump‘s leadership style, often contrasting it with New Zealand’s recently elected Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her own brand of ‘relentlessly positive’ leadership style.


Infographic on the changing face of the workforce. Credit

Over the weekend we set up some new bunk beds for our two youngest children and it was fascinating to see the dynamics at work: who wanted to lead the project, who was happy contributing and who wanted to opt out entirely! I took a time lapse of the project (above) and you can see our kids variously coming and going with only our second oldest participating for the entire duration of the activity. This highlighted to me the increasing need to be flexible in leadership and to be comfortable in relinquishing control over activities to ensure maximum engagement from ‘the workers.’

I am very confident that if it had come down to just my wife and I doing it all, we would have completed it far quicker than allowing the kids to help out and contribute and we would likely have not experienced the elevated levels of frustration/stress that occurred a few times during the project. However, this would have prevented any sense of ownership and pride for our kids who were thrilled to be able to contribute to the construction of ‘their’ bunk beds.

To that end, I see the same challenges to leadership in the workplace and the continuing need to be flexible and responsive in terms of maximizing the output of team members. Over the last year, I’ve worked and conversed with a growing number of workmates who self-identify as ‘millennials.’ It has been fascinating to see their (often quite vocal) expectations of what the workplace should look like, how opportunities should present themselves and also how they prefer to approach their assigned work and responsibilities.  I don’t think there is necessarily anything right or wrong, better or worse in these attitudes, but they are definitely going to be something for leaders to need to take into account.  I suspect those leaders that adapt and show a willingness to be flexible to include the different styles of their teams (across all age and experience brackets) will likely succeed the best.

Ultimately, however, it’s probably similar to parenting. There are some issues that are simply not worth dying in a ditch over, whereas in my experience at least, both parents and children generally find that ‘choice within parameters’ works best by providing the necessary elements of autonomy whilst still providing the security of boundaries to safely operate within. In the workplace, those boundaries are often how we are measured in terms of performance or KPI and provide the broad-brush strokes of our objectives and outcomes.

Over the years, I’ve managed people who very much preferred to ‘paint by numbers’ and have almost step-by-step guides for how to complete their work. Consequently, they showed almost no initiative when it came to problem solving and resolving issues they had not confronted before. I see this is changing, highlighted by the preferences of millennials, and is perhaps also being driven by a renewed focus on problem solving in the New Zealand education system.

In late November 2017 the Ministry of Education published a summary showing that in PISA’s OECD 2015 study New Zealand students excelled at collaborative problem solving:

Historically considered soft skills, these are more and more being seen as essential by employers who are competing in a globally connected and technology savvy world… Students with collaborative problem solving skills and competencies will be well placed to take advantage of the many opportunities they will be faced with in an evolving work environment, and an increasingly global digital world.

Reading the more in-depth review of the PISA testing is instructive for both New Zealand educational and business leaders as well, because it is going to be precisely these students that will be entering the workforce over the coming years. Without doubt, this is going to challenge the leadership styles of many of those in existing leadership roles in business.

I attended an event in Auckland towards the end of 2017 where a number of self-described futurists outlined their vision of the future in terms of education and the workplace. One of them, Frances Valintine, talked about the mass of students coming into high schools now who have only ever experienced ‘modern learning environments’ and largely ‘self-directed learning.’ She posed the question how will secondary schools, with their more traditional approach to teaching and assessment, cope with these more autonomous students.


One of my favourite quotes.

I suspect the same question could be asked of the workplace if not now, then certainly over the coming three to five years. In many ways, social media has empowered everyone to ‘have a voice’ and freely express their opinions and views, irrespective of how well thought out they may be. I see elements of that emboldened approach to speak out in the workplace as well, challenging traditional established hierarchies. Again, some workplaces will maintain the status quo and expect young graduates to ‘be quiet and learn the ropes’ before actively contributing, however I think in the increasingly competitive marketplace focused on attracting top talent that view will not last.

In my current role I do not have any direct reports, something that I have not experienced for well over a decade. It has provided me with an opportunity to observe the leadership around me and also think more deeply about what it means to be a leader without a title. That’s probably a topic for another blog post, however in an era where there is increasing talk about ‘influencers’ (social, or otherwise), one thing is clear: the requirements to be a successful leader are changing. As General Eric Shinseki so memorably inferred, if leaders are not open to change then they will ultimately become irrelevant.

I am always keen to discuss what I've written and hear your ideas so leave a reply here...