Digital leadership: still a tough nut to crack

September 23, 2020

Rita Zonius and Ephraim Freed, two of our DWG24 hosts, are seasoned digital workplace practitioners. They caught up for an informal chat to discuss digital leadership ahead of the show next week, and here’s how it went (with a written transcription below).

Ephraim: Rita, DWG24 is upon us again. Why are we still having the conversation about leaders leading in a digital workplace? Why does it still seem a difficult nut to crack?

Rita: It’s like Groundhog Day and we’re back here again. The problem is we still live our lives according to old business rules and we neglect to think that we’re in a digital workplace.

What I mean by that is that some people believe in hoarding information. Hoarding information gives them power so they don’t share information or they don’t share it in a timely manner. Or believing that the HIPPO in the room — the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion — is the most important opinion and therefore we shouldn’t listen to the views of others.

We think that we can control internal communication or external communication, when the reality is those barriers have come down.

So I think there are leaders who are living their lives according to this set of old business rules and we really need to rewire ourselves now to work in a more open and visible way in the digital age. Those old rules are holding us back.

Ephraim: That’s beautifully said. For me, there are a couple of different things. One is, to your point, it’s a mindset and there are some leaders that have a mindset of “I’m in control” and “I’m going to tell people what to do”. And there are other leaders in a mindset of “It’s my job to create an environment where everybody is going to excel and succeed. It’s my job to create an environment where the right ideas are the ones that are surfaced from wherever they come from and get the backing of the resources that they need”. So, to a degree, it feels like a mindset thing.

It’s also leaders needing to shift and realize that what happens in the meetings they’re in, and in their physical work environment, is not everything that’s happening in the workplace. Especially today, in pandemic times, it’s as important to be present and participating and visible as anywhere else.

And related to that I think there’s this issue that a lot of senior leaders are in meetings all the time. There’s this step ladder where the higher you get in an organization the more of your time you’re in meetings. There is this reality of needing to actually make time to be in the digital space.

Rita: It’s a very deliberate choice that you have to make now. When you were you in the workplace, this stuff unfolded organically. You’re in the kitchen, you happen to bump into someone you need to talk to. We have to create those opportunities now that they don’t happen. What do you think then? What tools and tactics are good leaders using – [leaders] who understand that effort needs to be put into this? What is it that they’re doing that others aren’t?

Ephraim: First of all, they’re being visible. That means they’re doing live videos: they’re spending time commenting and connecting with people in the digital workplace. So part of it is being visible. And there are a lot of ways to do that. You need a platform, like Microsoft, Slack or Workplace by Facebook. There are all these different tools and platforms where you can have this open, collaborative, “working out loud” kind of environment that enables leaders to be present, as well as live video and town halls.

The other really big piece is the soliciting of feedback […]. A leader does not have to always be giving answers. They can be asking questions. Asking what questions people have prior to a live town hall video and having people vote on them. A really simple thing, but it lets people drive the agenda [and] help surface concerns that are top of mind. That’s where I start. With the presence and the feedback mechanisms, digitally.

Rita: It’s funny that you say those things because I’ve observed this in my children as they’ve sat next to me for months on end now doing distance learning. The parallels are amazing. I wrote about this recently. Our kids are happy to be vulnerable; they’re happy to be curious and ask questions. They don’t feel like they need to have all the answers. Yet, there’s something wired in us, in senior leaders particularly who’ve been extraordinarily successful. It’s almost as if they just don’t want to be vulnerable. It’s a really interesting observation you make.

Ephraim: That’s such a fascinating thing. I’ve heard this idea that the thing that gets a leader into a leadership role isn’t necessarily the thing that helps them succeed in that role. Being brilliant and outstanding might get you recognized and promoted but, at a certain point, what you have to do is help other people be brilliant and outstanding. Or help everybody do that.

Rita: How do you think leaders are going on dialling up the empathy now? We are isolated, we’re at home, working by ourselves. Many of us are living alone. How are leaders dialling up the empathy when you can’t be in front of somebody in a physical sense?

Ephraim: I’ll throw out as a starter that leaders need to be real people. They need to let their colleagues and teams know when they’re having a hard time, if they’ve been through something tough or they’re having a hard day or that they don’t have the answers. They just need to give themselves permission to be real people. That’s kind of where I think it starts. There’s a lot more to it, but what are your thoughts?

Rita: I liken it to being at a dinner party. In real life, you go to a dinner party and you make conversation with people sitting around you. It’s an exchange. It’s not me talking at you for half an hour and then getting up and walking away. How would that play out?

I often use that story to say to leaders: just be a nice human being in there. Act [in the virtual world] the way you would in the real world. It’s just the same kind of behaviour. Have the radar on for that. Being social and working in a digital workplace, whether that’s in enterprise social or even outside in LinkedIn, being social is a two-way exchange and I think a lot of leaders are forgetting about that piece. If they dialled that up a bit, the empathy would follow.

Ephraim: Related to that is the idea that you don’t always have to be solving a problem. If employees are having a tough time right now, for example, working from home, being overwhelmed and not knowing where things are going to go, it’s okay to acknowledge those feelings without saying “we have to solve it”. A lot of leaders and C-level executives are used to solving things. The thing about vulnerability and being open and honest about yourself and with other people is that you can’t always solve emotions, but sometimes the solution to big emotions is just recognizing them.

Rita: Correct. We’re all human beings here and this pandemic has done one thing – it’s been a great leveller. We’re looking into each other’s living rooms, seeing the cats and dogs and the toddlers running around. There’s nothing that shows your humanity faster than those sorts of things.

Ephraim: Absolutely. Let’s embrace it and maybe one thing that comes out of all this is that at work we’re all a little bit more okay being humans.

Rita: Exactly. But I want to ask you a really important question. This is THE most important question of the whole conversation. What are you looking forward to the most during DWG24? Is it the snacks that you and I will be consuming as we co-host for six or seven hours while London is sleeping, or the content? Which is it?

Ephraim: Since you and I are co-hosting and we have so much fun with it, then I’m definitely going to say the snacks. The content is going to be great, but we had such a good time last time, so I’m looking forward to co-hosting and the snacks we’re going to have.

Rita: I’m looking forward to seeing what’s on Paul Miller’s playlist. The songs that enable us to quickly run off and have a bathroom break in that six to seven hours that we’re hosting. He picks some good songs.

Ephraim: He does. That playlist he puts together is amazing. He is so much more hip to good new music these days than I am!

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Categorised in: Digital workplace, DWG24, Future of work

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