There’s a saying in the corporate world: “That’s a VHS.” It means that’s an outmoded way of doing things, a practice held over from the Dark Ages. And it’s a perfect way of characterizing the old approach to leadership: the idea that people are motivated by money and control rather than achievement and goals.
If we want to elevate performance in the modern organization, we need to ditch the VHS player — or what Mark Babbitt calls the “industrial-age thought process” — and get ourselves a smartphone instead.
Mark is president of the management consulting firm Switch and Shift and the co-author of A World Gone Social: How Companies Must Adapt to Survive. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mark on my radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection.
The old style of leadership is over
Mark summed up the old style of leadership as “autocratic, decisive, and usually loud.”
“It was done without taking much input from the crowd. It was our decision. We worked hard to be bold. We worked hard to have all the answers,” he said.
“And along comes the social age, and along come millennials, and they don’t want just be told what to do. They want to have a voice. They expect you to listen, they expect you to state the challenge and let them help solve the problem. They expect you to collect input from just about everywhere: customers, employees, research and development.”
Mark has seen both sides of the leadership coin. He told me that at the beginning of his career, he worked in autocratic organizations — the military and the corporate world of Silicon Valley — which, to put it bluntly, “sucked.”
“Then I decided the only idiot I wanted to work for was me, so I started my own agency.
“Ten years later, I realized it still sucked. But it wasn’t the people, it wasn’t the process, it was the leadership — including mine.”
Mark finally had an epiphany when he tried to bring his domineering style of leadership into his home. “It took a night of being up with a sick kid. My daughter just needed somebody to hold onto. She didn’t need to be told what to do. She just wanted somebody to talk to her and listen. It just hit me like a ton of bricks. This what people need. This is what humans need.”
Social leadership: The ‘blue unicorn’
Mark has a name for the leadership style that this new world of work demands: Social Leadership.
“By far the most important thing is active listening,” he said. “We don’t have to have all the answers, we just need to know people who do have them and to give them the tools and the resources they need, and get out the way.
“People in this environment feel more collaborative, more autonomous, more valued. They go home at the end of the day thinking, ‘You know what? I got stuff done today and it felt pretty good.’ It comes full circle, not just in how it impacts our team but our company, our culture, and our ability to recruit new talent.”
So Mark and I agree: the days of leaders just talking at people are finished. At least, they ought to be. The reality is that the old style of “command-and-control” leadership is still alive and well at most companies.
Mark recalled a conversation with Jim Clawson, a management consultant and emeritus professor of leadership at the University of Virginia. Jim said executives who practice social leadership are so rare that he considered them “blue unicorns.” In other words, not just a unicorn, but a specific color of unicorn. “We use that phrase often in our consultancy and our media channels to describe just how rare this new brand of leadership is,” Mark said.
“The big thing about the social age is we’re seeing a lot of David’s take on Goliath’s. The little clothes shop, the little bakery, the little shoe store — if you implement social leadership and you amplify on social media, you can take on these big boys. And it’s leveled the playing field. It’s a pretty exciting thing to see.”
How social leadership builds corporate culture
One of the many positive effects social leadership has on a company is that it inspires people to feel more loyal, Mark told me. “If their purpose is aligned with the purpose of the organization, it’s harder for them to leave — it’s like leaving family. People feel like they’re a member of a club, or a member of a team. And they don’t want to disappoint their teammates.
“When you get that kind of climate, that kind of culture, then guess what happens. People start to refer others to that company who share that same mindset, those same values. And now we’re not scrambling to hire new people — people are coming to us and saying, ‘Hey, I hear you’re a great company to work for and I have some skills that it sounds like you need.’ ”
But living in the social age means that bad news spreads as easily as good, Mark pointed out. Case in point: Volkswagen’s recent public relations disaster.
“When you really blow it in today’s economy, the whole world’s going to know about it,” Mark said. “Because we’re going to talk about it on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn and Instagram and Pinterest.
“You know what, we’re a very forgiving world. So don’t get the legal team in the room, don’t get PR in the room, don’t get all the graveyard people in the room and say, ‘Let’s see how we’re going to spin this.’ Don’t spin it. Go live and say ‘Wow, we blew it, but we own it.’ ”
A great leader: more mentor than manager
Whereas the typical industrial-age leader is all about compliance, conformity, and meeting metrics, the social leader cares more about helping people grow and develop.
“A mentor says ‘How can I help you be more successful? Not just in this role, but as a person?’ ” Mark explained. “That’s such a shift from what I was taught in business school. Back then it was like, ‘Hey, you’re lucky to have a job, there’s a million replacements for you.’ Now we’re talking about making people feel like they’re human and working with them to better themselves.”
That was the inspiration behind YouTern, an online peer-to-peer network of recruiters, resume writers, students, graduates and young professionals who support each other as they embark on their careers. “A bunch of us got together and said, ‘What if we stopped just advertising jobs and started helping people win the jobs?” Mark said.
Even if you don’t have a social leader at the top, even if you’re stuck in a top-down organization, you can still create a pocket of excellence within your own team, in your own department. “People will start to get noticed and it will start to spread,” Mark said. “You’ll start to get some positive attention that will go viral through your company. We’ve seen it over and over.”
It’s more difficult if you don’t have a believer at the top, true, but it can still happen, Mark insists. “We tell people, ‘If your top-down person doesn’t believe in this, if they don’t eventually become a social leader, their replacement will.’ ”