In the words of John Quincy Adams, true leadership is inspiring others to “dream more, learn more, do more and become more.” This is not easy. Think about work life to date and the people who lead or manage in some capacity. How many of those leaders inspire others to “dream more, learn more, do more and become more”? One, maybe two?
Few people are natural business leaders. The ability to galvanize an entire workforce and convince employees to execute a vision requires a huge amount of confidence and conviction. When faced with a difficult decision, many people prefer to defer to someone else, placing the responsibility for unforeseen outcomes in another person’s hands.
Further, the role of the business leader has changed. Not so long ago divisions between the boardroom and the workforce were clear. Businesses tended to be hierarchical in structure: those in charge instructed workers on what needed to be done, and they did as they were told.
A New Approach to Work
Attitudes have shifted significantly. In the 1990s a new, more socially driven, inclusive approach to management emerged. Managers and senior leaders began to take a greater interest in employees, recognizing that a happier, more-enthused workforce would generate better results. This put pressure on senior management to promote development and nurture more, and employees became empowered to speak out about bad management practices and to question directions.
Technology also has been a catalyst to further change perceptions about work while bringing new challenges and opportunities to the workplace. In the typical 1993 workplace, there was one office with lots of desks. Employees arrived at 9 a.m., perhaps commuting 30 to 60 minutes. They spent most of the day at their desks or in meeting rooms with colleagues, then left at roughly 5 p.m.
In the 2013 workplace, work happens anywhere: the office, a client’s office, a friend’s office, a coffee shop, the airport, a hotel room, on a train or in a garden. Because of high-speed broadband, cloud computing and mobile devices, people are no longer required to spend hours at their desk in one static location.
Also, because of more fluid ideas about work and enabling advances in technology, today people expect to be able to strike a greater work-life balance.
Technology also allows businesses to look further afield when recruiting talent. Commuting limitations are no longer problematic because companies can employ people at the opposite end of the country, or in some cases, the other side of the world.
This requires a different kind of leader, one who is comfortable speaking to different cultures, using different delivery systems and handling different challenges. Consider the backlash Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer had to deal with last year when she changed remote working policies at the company. She said “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings.”
Social interaction has long been a lubricant for meaningful innovation, and it is one of today’s leaders’ most effective tools, as long as the individual is flexible. It’s not all about technology. It’s rumored that Steve Jobs insisted on just one set of toilets on the ground floor of the Apple headquarters; employees had to walk along the same corridor to get there and would be encouraged to interact with each other.
The Rise of the Virtual Leader
Dispersed workforces are also more common today, and they pose a number of challenges. One workforce situated in one place is far easier to manage than a workforce spread across numerous locations. Wherever they are located, leaders should be able to empathize with the workforce and understand the pressures employees are under, their challenges and what makes them tick.
Being adept at social or mobile platforms won’t matter unless leaders spend time working alongside employees, talking to them and seeing things from their perspective. Regular interaction also helps to create a cohesive company culture, a strong business identity that employees will buy into, share and feel a sense of loyalty toward, no matter where they are.
Another key part of business leadership is allowing employees to grow and develop. This means equipping them with the skills to meet the evolving demands of their industry. Learning and development also help keep employees engaged, which can raise morale and facilitate top talent retention.
Technology has helped create a more mobile and flexible workforce, and it is helping business leaders tackle the fundamentals of leadership today. Global businesses are using virtual communication platforms to help leaders, senior managers and individual employees create new models for engagement across their organizations. They are also being used to offer more interactive training sessions through live webcasts, social media interaction, expert Q&As and collaborative online sessions.
The modern business leader needs to understand how these new tools can be used to engage today’s workforce. As an increasing number of employees work remotely from multiple locations, senior figures need to become virtual leaders, providing employees with the level of interaction and guidance they need when and where they need it.
For example, it is now possible to host training sessions via a live webcast, allowing an unlimited number of individuals to join from pretty much any corner of the globe. Individuals can interact with content in real time, asking questions as they arise. Ten years ago a similar training session would have taken place on multiple occasions across numerous cities over the course of a few months, accruing air miles and costing a significant amount of money. Today, a business can train its entire workforce on the same day.
Food service and facilities management company Sodexo created a virtual learning environment, or VLE, for employee development. In the past, the company held traditional, live training sessions that were costly because of the travel involved for site-based managers.
Its VLE brings together decentralized groups of employees with regular technical updates, career development information and shared learning related to specific topics for 4,000 individuals. The learning environment reinforces long-term strategy by communicating progress and defining managers’ roles in the company’s overall strategy, as well as offering performance tools and job aids to implement needed changes and improve business outcomes. By avoiding in-person training, Sodexo’s VLE has generated more than $1 million in cost savings, and the company has doubled its training attendance rate.
Hotel chain Marriott created a leadership program with a goal to provide training to 733 hotels in 23 countries. The program was originally delivered entirely through live, location-based instruction, with trainers and trainees flown to locations to receive training. This caused problems when delivering training in secondary and tertiary markets because associates had to spend many hours traveling to participate in sessions.
The hotelier built a customized virtual learning environment that could be used by all of its managers and allow participants to engage in real-time learning, including live webcasts and question-and-answer periods. These social training methods increased trainee productivity and engagement, and Marriott was able to certify more than 5,000 managers in a short period of time, allowing them to train others in their hotels and give “big picture” training to another 10,000 managers via the VLE.
Today’s business leader needs to understand which tools not only address the challenges 21st century businesses face but which can be used to improve on past practices and create unprecedented levels of employee engagement. Virtual communications platforms can be used to bring a more engaging approach to on-the-job training or to encourage employees to share best practices or collaborate across departments.
As we move away from working in one central organizational hub, virtual communications help organizations to bridge the distance between the boardroom and the workforce to create one cohesive business. Virtual environments and webcasts are a few of the technologies today’s business leaders are using to meet organizational challenges because they’re easy to implement and maintain, they’re efficient and effective.
The problem is few organizations know exactly how to develop this new brand of leader. The ASTD Research report found only 1 in 5 respondents answered in the affirmative when asked if their employer provided specific training for virtual leaders. One in 10 said they didn’t know, and 70 percent answered in the negative. When asked if their employer provided a budget for such activities, only 13 percent confirmed an allocation. However, 76 percent of respondents thought it was either very important or important that leaders receive training on how to be an effective leader. This shows a clear disparity between the desire for virtual leadership development and its actual implementation.
Business never stops evolving. There always will be conflicting views about how to best approach the task at hand. Similarly, the nature of business dictates that organizations continually look to make operations more efficient and profitable.
During this time of global economic constraint, this focus on efficiency is necessary, and there likely will be significant changes in how people approach work over the coming years. Technology will be at the heart of that change, redefining people’s relationship with work and helping them to overcome the challenges inherent in change.
Sharat Sharan is president and CEO of ON24, a virtual communications company. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.