HR Viewpoint: Dave Millner on leading in a disruptive age

In the first of a series of interviews with future of work and HR experts, we ask author, futurist and founder of HR Curator Dave Millner what leadership behaviours will be needed to succeed in an era characterised by business disruption
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Edited transcript

Dave Millner: If we look over a five to 10-year timeline, what are the priorities that leaders are going to have to get their heads around from a disruption point of view?

I think number one is undoubtedly around automation, and I don't mean them becoming au fait with automation, but understanding the impact that automation makes upon the workforce.

So how can we make sure that, while automation is either being drip fed into an organisation or significantly changing overnight the way in which people are operating, how do leaders think about the jobs and the work that people need to do.

It’s not just about the automation. The automation is almost the easy part. The difficult part is the bit that goes around that, in terms of the humans that operate with it, that operate to support it, or operate running alongside a different process. So the connection and the boundaries between automation and the workforce, is number one as a critical priority.

Number two for me is undoubtedly around leaders very clearly having an understanding about what the employees and their workforce really want from their work. We will continue to spend most of our lives at work. Therefore, what is it that we can do to ensure that employees feel connected, involved, trusted, respected and rewarded to an extent for what they do?

I think this is all embraced in the employee experience people have talked about. I genuinely believe that the employee experience is a critical differentiator to keeping people for that extra bit longer at your organisation. The impact of your employees on the customers is far greater when you've got employees who feel connected and engaged with the organisation and what it's doing. So for me that is number two.

So we've got automation, the impact and the boundaries at number one, we've got the workforce and how do we drive that experience at number two - I really believe in that. And then the third one for me is most definitely around leadership and learning.

We have got to forget about the old way of learning and the old way of leading. The very best leaders from research are those that continually learn. And that, in many ways, means that they may have to show vulnerability. It may be that they have to show areas where they're not quite so competent or not quite so proficient. But for me, that is what a great leader really does. It is when they are demonstrating, look, that's not one of my strengths, I need you to come and help me to think about what ideas we've got around that. This is when leaders are truly respected. It is when they start to understand what they're good at, understand what they're not so good at, and then start to operate with people in their various teams to both compliment and support them as they move forward.

So, you might call it the leadership brand or leadership style. It’s about leadership and learning and how they apply their new opportunities to learn new ways of doing things.

We’ve gone through probably the biggest work experiment that we've ever had within the last six months. Suddenly, things that would have taken months, maybe even years, have happened in weeks, in days. And it's quite interesting to think, why has that happened? And it's happened because circumstances have dictated it. We've had to do it.

And so yes, being agile is important, but actually, it's about responsiveness. This is probably the most critical thing. There’s no point being agile and fleet of foot, if you're not responsive in the right way to clients, both internal and external, and to the employees.

One of the things that I've seen, particularly where I've been talking to some senior execs in or around what's been happening and aligned to that responsiveness, is the fact that employees have had to embrace empowerment. They may well have felt more empowered because they're at work and at home and they're in charge of their own destiny. There is definitely an empowerment aspect.

When I look back at what we’ve been talking about as the future of work, that's always been one of the critical things – how can you empower the workforce to use the technology, feel that they're in control and suddenly enable them to make better decisions. And obviously, because we've had to collaborate from afar, we've had to work in different work patterns, we've had to do things differently, and there is undoubtedly an underlying change in what employees now feel about what they can do at work. I've seen that now people are feeling more empowered to do things, you don't have your manager looking over your shoulder or whatever, because the manager is now having to themselves behave and operate in a different way.

The behaviors that I think leaders need to really focus on are probably around four things predominantly. They need to be providing clarity to the organization, in terms of where we are, what the challenges are, what we need to be doing, what is working and also what isn't working.

They need to be what I would describe as energisers – people who stimulate people, who get people excited about things. And that's easy for me to say in this forum, it's far more difficult to actually do that in an environment where your workforce is disparate. These sorts of webinars and the sorts of meetings that we have over phones and video conferences are not the best necessary way of doing that. But I think what all leaders need to understand is that the touchpoints that they have with their employees, with their workforce, are probably going to become less and less.

That therefore means when they do impact and have a chance to interact with their workforce in whatever forum, they have to really energise people and get people excited about what is trying to be achieved in the organisation.

So these are the top two but, underneath it all, we need to consider growth –personal growth and also, how we ensure that people feel connected to what is happening. One of the big things that I can see happening is that, if I look back over my career, which is longer than I would wish to advocate, leaders were perceived to be the fount of all knowledge. They were people that you followed what they said, what they did, you didn't question or challenge. That's moved over time in terms of people trying to feel part of something. When I look at leadership of the future, I see a more engaging leadership, a more futuristic one, a more connected leadership. And it's also about indicating that you haven't got all the answers. The very best leaders are those that are able to connect with people and get them to help them to come up with the very best answers.

That sort of step change is one of the things that will ultimately dictate what I think is the future of leadership in terms of trying to really make sure that they have some humility. This isn't just about results and success – that's the fourth area of leadership, which will always be in part about driving better results. But it's about the way you do it. This humility, having this connection, showing that actually you are human and that you're not just working 18/19 hours a day… that is the way that people are going to be respected in the future. They're going to be respected for how they do it, not necessarily what they do.

So these are some of the critical things. One of the things we've got to remember – I was reading a book or an article by Ram Charan, who works a lot with Harvard. And he said something along the lines 70% of strategic failures are due to poor execution of leadership.

So we've really got to make sure that leaders are on the case, that they know the future. They know today, they know tomorrow but, more importantly, they know that they have the support and the involvement of their employees and their workforce to make it happen.

People talk about different generations in the workforce. Whether you agree with that or not, there are undoubtedly people with different perspectives. That’s the way I would look at it. So we've really got to think about how we can make this a more humanistic way of operating in an environment that is becoming more technological and more distant.

Therefore the role of the leader in that environment becomes absolutely critical to making people feel, dare I use this word, loved, and respected and cared for. If nothing else, the impact of the pandemic, I hope, will be to make leaders think possibly a little bit differently about their workforce and the people that work for them.

Dave Millner is author of Introducing People Analytics: A Practical Guide to Data-Driven HR, a futurist and founder of HR Curator. This is one of a series of interviews The People Space is conducting with HR leaders and futurists in advance of the release of new research into leadership behaviours in disruptive times with our Brand Partner 10Eighty. The research will be unveiled in October in a series of virtual events, The Rise of the Human Focused Leader. Register to ensure your place here

Published 10 September 2020

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