Leaders Don’t get to Stop Learning

Just before lockdown the company I work for was starting to pilot Microsoft Teams to replace Skype.

Teams is clearly superior to Skype, and when lockdown hit Skype rapidly became unstable under the pressure, so for those of us who had made the jump to Teams it was obvious that we should be using the newer and faster technology that could still maintain a call.

During the second full week of lockdown I arranged a call that was to take place in Teams, there were to be a couple of senior leaders on the call, but I didn’t anticipate any issues.

However, one of the leaders took exception to the call being on Teams; he couldn’t figure out how to get into the call, he refused to try and work through it, and he insisted that the call be moved back to Skype.

Once in Skype, I was told in no uncertain terms that all future calls should be in Skype, the leader didn’t have the time or the inclination to be learning something new. Despite the plan to move the company to Teams, Skype was the technology that he understood, and so Skype was the technology that we were to use.

It was a deeply disappointing moment; for me leaders need to be on the front end of change, they need to be champions of new tools and new approaches, they need to demonstrate through their actions that constant learning is a requirement for everyone.

No one is done. Ever.

Everything is changing, and it’s getting faster

Let’s park lockdown for a moment, although we’ll come back to it.

Eighteen months ago almost all of my work would have been done on a laptop and stored either on the laptop’s drive or a shared folder. I would have communicated via Skype and email, and I would have mailed files to other people for them to store locally or on their own shared drives, edit, and send back to me.

Now, not much more than a year later, everything is stored in OneDrive or Sharepoint, I can pick it up and work with it from any device, I communicate almost exclusively through Teams, and I collaboratively author files or documents with others live on a single shared instance.

These changes were coming, and have been for a long time, there has been a steady march towards these kinds of collaborative tools; Slack has been around for a decade, Google Documents added collaborative authoring in 2009, the App Store arrived in 2008; and more changes are on the horizon.

Services like Power Automate and If This Then That are bringing Robotic Process Automation to the masses, Power BI will bring AI-generated insights to data, together with generated analysis and forecasts.

We will work alongside AI ‘colleagues’ that will watch for trends and insights for us, pulling our attention to the things that require course correction or a human hand in real time. They will message us through Teams alongside their human counterparts.

We will do it all from a phone, or an iPad, and, thanks to the events of the last 6 months, we will increasingly do it away from an office.

Leaders on the Forefront

While I spoke in my last post about leaders not being experts, that doesn’t mean that they can’t be champions.

The role of a leader is not just to set strategy and intent, but it is to role model behaviours, and through that, play a key role in setting the culture of an organisation.

If an organisation wants to be open to change, then its leaders must also be open to change, they must be willing to embrace new technologies and new ways of thinking; they must be willing to try new things and, occasionally, look silly when they don’t work.

It is more important than ever that leaders show a willingness to adapt. Over the last 6 months, alongside new technologies, leaders who have been used to seeing their teams and colleagues five days a week have had to figure out how to lead people that they can’t see.

For many, even in 2020, this is something that they were not prepared for; before lockdown, even up to the beginning of this year, I worked with a significant number of leaders who insisted on their teams coming into the office every day, who would disparage home working, and who were clearly fearful of the loss of control that was inherent in having distributed teams.

They were the first to have to change, some have adapted well, others haven’t; those who were unable to move into a learning mode, who were inflexible and set in their ways, struggled most.

Leadership Itself is Changing

The role of the leader is still shifting as our relationship with the office changes, and while we haven’t figured out what that relationship will look like yet, it is a fair bet that those of us who used to go to the office every day, will spend more time working remotely for the long term.

To cope with this, leaders need to be comfortable allowing their teams to manage themselves much more; individuals must be trusted to manage their time and their workload, to work flexibly and deliver results, not hours.

This will be a paradigm shift for many leaders, they will need to learn to articulate strategic intent and high-level requirements, and allow their people the space to deliver those requirements in their way.

Learning how to motivate teams and individuals while not being physically present, and how to develop a team culture and build trust when everything is virtual will all be key to navigating the changes ahead, and this is just the beginning.

So, What Can Leaders Do?

  • Show Curiosity — Curiosity and a willingness to try new things is a habit, as is sticking to what you know and thinking that you don’t need new answers. Start asking questions from a place of genuine curiosity, assume the person that you’re talking to knows more than you, be open to learn something from them. Get into the habit of wanting to understand new tools and approaches, rather than looking for reasons why they won’t work for you and your organisation.
  • Role Model — As I mentioned before, leaders should be champions of learning and change. Demonstrating a willingness to try new technologies and new ways of working, and being open to the suggestions of others, are central to demonstrating a development mindset. Leaders who shut down change will create team cultures that are closed to new tools and new ways of thinking.
  • Share Experiences — Did it work? Did it not work? Could it be better? If so, how? Don’t shy away from talking about failure, we learn more from failure than we do from success, and being open about trying new things and failing gives others licence to do the same. Also, sharing these experiences speeds up learning, and brings teams closer together.

Above all, leaders must show a demonstrated commitment to learning and development, and they must never disparage others who do the same.

Thinking back to the call I spoke about at the beginning, how likely do you think it is that people who heard a Senior Leader berate me for using a new technology subsequently went off to learn how to make the most of Teams for themselves?

And how many took away the message that the way to impress their boss was to rail against change, even if it was a clear improvement on the existing state of affairs?

The world in which we operate will continue to change, in large and small ways, sometimes the changes will be evolutionary and sometimes revolutionary, but they will always be there, and they will never stop.

Leaders who lose the ability to learn and to react to these changes will become responsible for cultures that are unable to adapt, and that will ultimately die.

Leaders must commit to change, to adaptation, and to lifelong learning.

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