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Anyone Can Lead with the Next Rules of Work

Perhaps you noticed - in the response to the global pandemic - that the role of those who lead in organizations changed overnight, forging new bonds of trust and accelerating reliance on digital toolsets?

What you may not have seen is that for many, that role change is solidifying. Despite the hope of traditional managers that work would bungee-cord back to “normal,” in this brave new world of problem- and project-centric work performed by distributed teams, a new mindset and skillset will be required for leading.

A useful way to think of Mindset in the context of work is the mental preparation and framing for interacting with others and solving problems.

You have a range of beliefs about many things in life. Beliefs in the context of work related to your own skills and attributes, the skills and attributes of others, and the ways you believe people in your organization should behave, which we often call culture.

In her book Mindset, author Carol Dweck delineates between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. Many of the beliefs that underlie a fixed mindset – such as the conviction that intelligence is unchangeable – are consistent with “the old rules of work,” holdovers from a post-Industrial-Era mentality that consistently places an upper limit on human potential.

But a growth mindset is more in line with the next rules of work, the rules we are all rapidly adopting in response to a world of exponential change.

If mindset establishes your mental framing, then skillset is the set of capabilities you bring to solving problems and interacting effectively with others.

Though few words have as many subjective definitions in as many languages as “skill,” research stretching back to the 1950s by the U.S. Labor Department grouped human skills into three useful categories:

  • Bodies of knowledge (which I have labeled “Know” skills)
  • “Flex” skills usable in a range of situations
  • The skills we use to guide our own actions (“Self” skills)

The old rules of work heavily rewarded "Know" skills for deep domain knowledge and long-term expertise and experience, and often mislabeled them as “hard” skills (vs “soft skills” like good communication).

But the shelf-life of knowledge in many fields is rapidly eroding, and an increasing amount of learning is becoming “just-in-time” and “just-in-context,” like with Gen Z workers rapidly digesting YouTube how-to videos just before solving the problem in front of them.

That requires a dramatic shift toward "Flex" skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaborating, and increased importance for "Self" skills like time management and task completion.

There is no question that Mindset eats Skillset for lunch: Whether you do or do not think of yourself as a problem-solver, you’re probably right. But the ideal combination for someone who leads is the appropriate mindset and skillset based on the organization’s strategic goals and desired cultural context.

Think of these as “strategic tactics:” tactical capacity to help attain the organization’s strategic goals. And the newly distributed organization demands a new set of strategic tactics.

My group Charrette LLC conducted a scan of the broad range of essential tactics of organizations, from guiding distributed teams to encouraging diversity, equity, and inclusion and synthesized those into a Venn diagram landscape.

Four key anchors leapt from the page to define the critical mindset and skillset of the next rules of work: empower Effectiveness, enable Growth, ensure Involvement and encourage Alignment.

Think of these as the four superpowers of the next organization. Here is how you can practice each of them in your work:

1. Effectiveness

Effectiveness includes the range of strategies that help workers to solve the problems they face in their work roles.

Encourage each worker to write their own description of what they believe constitutes being effective in their work, including clearly defining the problems they are being asked to solve and the skills they bring to solve those problems.

Make sure that every worker uses those commitments as the foundation of agreements with team guides (often called “managers”) and coworkers.

2. Growth

Growth is the anchor for continuous personal development and the organization’s commitment to maximizing human potential.

Every worker in the organization should have a North Star or Southern Cross for their career direction and personal growth plan.

Ensure that each worker’s plan charts the path for their continuous learning and becomes part of regular discussions throughout the organization so that personal growth becomes infused into its culture.

3. Involvement

Involvement requires commitment to authentic practices that will continually increase diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the organization.

You can practice involvement by changing hiring practices and shifting from degree-based qualifications to role requirements based on problems and skills, and through programs that soften the walls of the organization like mentorships and apprenticeships.

4. Alignment

Alignment is a critical superpower in a world of suddenly distributed workers and soft-walled organizations.

Your organization will increasingly involve workers in a range of use cases for work, from traditional employees to cloud-based gig workers.

Ensure that every worker can list the organization’s top strategic goals and can articulate how their personal and team goals align with the organization’s.

Model frequent communications skills by encouraging alignment within your team, between teams, and with the organization’s stakeholders. For example, the recently public software company Asana not only provides tools for managing alignment throughout an enterprise; the business has followed a set of principles and practices encouraging alignment from its founding.

You will notice that I don’t use the word “leader.” The limitless flow of books and videos from what has become a leadership industrial complex has created a mythology of poster-child companies steered by near-perfect leaders.

But the pace and scale of change guarantee that most of today’s market leaders are tomorrow’s also-rans, leading to inevitable disappointment when their leadership “secrets” don’t fully translate to other organizations.

And the old-rules “leadership” black box of highly compensated executives at the top of the pyramid is no longer sufficient for guiding nimble organizations – if it ever was.

The next rules of work require a different mindset. You can encourage anyone in your organization to lead. Look at pharma giant Novartis and its practice of “unbossing” for inspiration to push decision-making into the hands of those who can best solve problems at their inception.

You, and everyone who leads in your organization, can learn the four superpowers of Effectiveness, Growth, Involvement and Alignment.

Together, they define a set of genuinely new ways of thinking and acting that those who lead must develop to continually guide agile organizations through uncertainty.

Yesterday the driver of exponential change was a global pandemic. Tomorrow it may be an exponential technology such as artificial general intelligence or limitless fusion power.

Anyone can (and should) be encouraged to lead in an organization by developing these four superpowers for the next mindset and skillset.

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