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When Steve Ballmer announced his retirement from Microsoft last fall, the former CEO told the Wall Street Journal, “the best way for Microsoft to enter a new era is a new leader who will accelerate change.” 

While trust and confidence were key traits for leaders of yore, nimbleness and the ability to engage are just as important for business managers today. Our fast-paced, increasingly remote work environments require leaders who can inspire their workers while keeping up with change.

Did ten-year plans from a decade ago account for the explosion in remote work or the bring-your-own-device trends in mobile? Even if managers didn’t see these changes coming, there’s no question that these trends have dramatically changed the way many people work.

Change is constant 

The business buzz term “change management” was popular a decade or so ago. A Google search yields countless thought leadership articles about systemic approaches to organizational transitions.

That model is dated, Avinoam Nowogrodski, CEO of project management company Clarizen, writes in Entrepreneur. Whereas companies once viewed change as a one-time or infrequent event, such as a product rollout, now they should think about it on a continual basis.

“Historically, people have thought about change in the workplace as the transition from one way of working to another. The current (and future) workplace demands accepting change and embracing it,” Nowogrodski writes. “At any given time, employees in many workplaces are adapting to changes in new technology, projects and leadership.”

To embrace change, engage workers

The breakneck pace of innovation doesn’t mesh well with traditional top-down leadership. It’s impractical for leaders to send out company-wide memos every time there’s a software update or a competitor releases a new product — these changes happen every day. By the time leaders make systemic plans for addressing changes, they’ve often missed the boat.  

“Command-and-control isn’t a fading leadership model simply for cultural reasons, but because modern organizations must respond in real time to fast-changing consumer preferences and agile competitors.” John Coleman and Jim Whitehurst write in the Harvard Business Review.

A different, more productive approach is to entrust employees with picking up on new technologies and strategies that align with organizational goals.

“This can only be done effectively when leaders have engaged their organizations deeply enough that employees aren’t simply executing tasks; they’ve understood and internalized the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of the strategy deeply enough that they can innovate on and improve that strategy as the market demands,” Coleman and Whitehurst write.

Take Zappos as an example. The online retailer doesn’t give its customer service representatives scripts. Instead it lets them choose the best way to have conversations with customers, pivoting when necessary. In addition to trusting employees, the strategy requires those workers to understand and act on the company’s mission: “To provide the best customer service possible.” Maybe that means talking an individual through a return process, or overnighting a free pair of shoes to a best man who was unprepared for a wedding.

It’s not that Zappos is too lazy to write scripts. In fact, customer service employees are required to undergo seven weeks of training on how to make customers happy. But by understanding the company's overall goal, they’re able to use the latest tools and technologies carry out that promise.

Photo: Can Stock