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Leading to the future, not the past

Employee Engagement |Future of Work|Inclusion and Diversity|Talent|Wellbeing
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By John M. Bremen | July 20, 2021

As leaders prepare for post-pandemic operations, two groups distinguish themselves: “Future seekers” and “Continuity creators.” Success during the next era will require elements of both.

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About the series

John Bremen is a guest contributor for Forbes.com, writing on topics including the future of work, leadership strategy, compensation and benefits, and sustainable strategies that support productivity and business success.

As leaders prepare their organizations for post-pandemic operations, two groups distinguish themselves: “Future seekers” who embrace a very different future, characterized by disruption, innovation, and growth; and “Continuity creators” who double down on elements of the past for the sake of stability and connection in an uncertain world. Debates in virtual and real board rooms, executive suites, and garages focus vigorously on the merits of each. Winning teams understand success during the next era will require elements of both.

Too much future-seeking without continuity leads to confusion, alienation and detachment by investors, consumers, and employees. Too much continuity without disruption leads to short-term thinking, denial, entrenchment, and competitive disadvantage.

Leadership strategies and expectations changed materially in 2020 and likely will never return to what once was considered “normal.” Research and experience suggest three leadership characteristics will be key to restoring stability and trust while pushing the envelope on productive disruption, including:

  1. 01

    Focus on purpose and profit

    In the new environment, both future-seeking and continuity-creating leaders understand that purpose and profit are correlated and interdependent. They understand the false choice of “purpose versus profits” that was a prevailing mindset at many companies for decades. They know that investors often favor purpose-driven organizations and that sustainable investments reached $40.5 Trillion in 2020; that the Edelman Trust Barometer reported that 80% of consumers around the world want brands to solve society’s problems; that employees are more likely to stay and be engaged at a purpose-driven organization.

    Being purpose-driven in the new environment does not mean abandoning business principles for social issues.  Rather, it acknowledges that corporations generate profits by creating benefits to society, such as: saving lives by developing new vaccines and drugs; distributing essential goods; providing capital; providing nourishment; accessing the internet; powering cities. Purpose becomes the continuity bridge from pre-pandemic to post-pandemic operations. The disruption becomes in “how” that purpose is delivered. Purpose serves as the leadership glue that drives constancy in company culture while business models and daily operations transform.

  2. 02

    Elastic innovation

    Elastic innovation is a mindset that disrupts innovation itself, constantly expanding and contracting market response on a short-term, real-time basis, while simultaneously continuing to manage innovation pipelines for the long-term.  Innovative businesses are more resilient in economic headwinds because their cultures and business models allow them to pivot quickly as the organization navigates through market uncertainty. Future-seeking leaders embrace this, demonstrated by countless stories of companies pivoting in 2020 to retool supply chains, distribution models, customer service protocols and products. Historically, innovation falls into three categories: Grassroots, incremental, and disruptive. Elastic innovation adds a fourth category to denote immediate-time efforts to address often temporary and short-lived market needs.

    The role of senior leaders becomes focused on creating the right culture, breaking down barriers, and empowering all leaders to bring forward good ideas from their teams, with many of the best ideas coming from deep within the organization. Leaders consider and prepare for multiple scenarios, deal with complexity and ambiguity, manage paradoxes and balance opposing views, and see the big picture while effectively managing details.

  3. 03

    Resilience through physical and psychological safety

    Both future-seeking and continuity-creating leaders understand organizational resilience provides a new form of competitive advantage. In general, organization resilience is defined as having the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and displaying toughness. Wellbeing is at center of this model following concurrent global health, financial, and social crises, all of which crystalized the impact of wellbeing on business results. Underlying support systems drive resilience in the name of sustainable performance. Leadership behaviors under a resilience mindset include practicality, agility, compassion, and transparency, and emphasizing dignity at, in, and from work, making work culture safe, inclusive and equitable.

    Physical and psychological safety are foundational elements to a culture of resilience. Effective leaders measure, assess, and articulate organizational progress and employee feedback on various components of these attributes, and seek to identify strengths and correlation between employee and organization resilience and financial outcomes. They employ a culture of workplace dignity that drives physical and psychological safety across three dimensions:

    • At work. Employees are physically safe and treated with respect in an environment free from marginalization; psychological safety enables them to be themselves, voice concerns and be heard.
    • In work. Employees take pride in what they do because it is valued, and see a future where employers prioritize reskilling and career-long learning
    • From work. Employees feel respected because they are paid what they are worth, are confident in their benefits to provide the security they need, and have the wellbeing to thrive now and in the future.

    While many leadership teams continue to plan for a return to what they considered normal prior to the pandemic, future-seekers understand those days no longer exist, instead embracing continuity through purpose, disrupting through elastic innovation, and building resilience through physical and psychological safety.

    A version of this article originally appeared on Forbes.com on June 16, 2021.

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Managing Director, Human Capital & Benefits, and Global Head of Thought Leadership and Innovation

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