As any dog owner will tell you, there’s a simple, two-prong approach to training your canine: reward them when they’re good and reprimand them when they’re bad.
Following the first industrial revolution, leaders across industries used this same carrot-and-stick management style: give employees incentives for being good and implement consequences for bad behavior. For a long time, this approach worked, but more recently, as the fourth industrial revolution unfolds, the rules have changed. Today’s employees want purpose, inspiration, and fulfillment. They respond to different kinds of motivations, and yesterday’s incentives — chiefly, money and job security — no longer cut the mustard.
Still, many leaders struggle to evolve their leadership styles. Paolo Gallo, former Chief Human Resources Officer of the World Economic Forum, commented:
“Overwhelmingly, even in the most innovative industries with the most ‘knowledge workers,’ we tend to manage using the same methods that were put in place to keep tabs on factory workers during the industrial revolution.”
As CEO of my company, Jotform, I understand the challenges of developing your leadership style and responding to the needs of today’s workforce. With the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left more teams working remotely than ever before, effective leadership is especially pressing. It’s an ongoing process and oftentimes requires learning on-the-go.
I think a lot about my own management style and have studied the successes and missteps of others. Here, a few of the leadership principles that the most successful leaders seem to practice.
1. Consider yourself as a teacher
The best leaders offer advice and instruction on a range of subjects, beyond the four corners of an employee’s current position. They do it in-person and whenever an opportunity arises, in addition to formal, scheduled instruction.
Writing for Harvard Business Review, Sydney Finkelstein writes:
“Cognitive psychologists, teachers, and educational consultants have long recognized the value of such personalized instruction: It fosters not just competence or compliance but mastery of skills and independence of thought and action.”
They show employees not just how to do their jobs, but also how to be leaders themselves.
Through their actions, these highly effective bosses demonstrate their investment in their employees’ growth. Take Ralph Lauren — Mindy Grossman, the former CEO of Polo Jeans Ralph Lauren who went on to become CEO of Weight Watchers, recalls Lauren regularly explaining to employees how to achieve authenticity and integrity in fashion, whether it was “a $24 T-shirt or a $6,000 crocodile skirt.”
They go above and beyond the role of the boss to impart their unique insight and knowledge of their craft.
2. Forget one-way, top-down thinking
We’ve all heard the complaints about millennials — how they want more from their careers (e.g., fulfillment) while simultaneously demanding #worklifebalance (used 1,827,095 on Instagram as of the writing of this article). Instead of rolling their eyes at the next generation, the best leaders have figured out how to tap into their esprit de corps — their unique ability to affect change through collective movements.
Consider a strategy that the World Economic Forum recently implemented: rather than dictating to younger generations how to accomplish their goals, they invited young people to choose projects in their communities and figure out how to achieve them. The result was an incredible number of innovative projects that impacted over 500,000 lives.
Giving your employees a seat at the table and allowing them to help shape larger initiatives will not only inspire and motivate them — you might come up with more innovative solutions than you ever could have imagined alone.
3. Consider your employees’ needs
“Lunch is for wimps.”
“Money never sleeps.”
These quotes, from the most infamous boss in cinema history: Gordon Gekko of Wall Street, represent a mentality that dominated the financial world in the late 80s — a “hustle hard” culture that’s become the norm in Silicon Valley, too.
But today’s best leaders recognize that employees who regularly rest are happier, more engaged and more productive. According to a Harvard Business Review survey of more than 19,000 people, at all levels in companies, across a broad range of industries, “people feel better and perform better and more sustainably when four basic needs are met: renewal (physical); value (emotional), focus (mental) and purpose (spiritual).”
Employees need rest. They need a work atmosphere where they can focus (feel free to check out my thoughts on open offices). They need to understand how they’re contributing value to an organization and be reminded of their higher purposes. Even if your teams are working remotely right now, you can still ensure — with video calls and regular check-ins — that these needs are met.
Employees who are happy and engaged make companies more profitable. A meta-analysis of research on nearly 200 companies found that employers with the most engaged employees were 22% more profitable than those with the least engaged employees.
It pays to think of your employees as unique individuals, not just cogs in a machine.
4. Continually reinforce your vision
When we say vision, we mean your “aspirational picture of future success” for your organization. Keep in mind, that’s different from your mission, which is why your organization exists. For example, let’s say you make eco-friendly eyeglasses. While your mission might be: To sustainably improve people’s eyesight; your vision would be: To scale your business to multiple continents while making the smallest possible environmental footprint.
Every employee, from intern to CEO, should have a clear vision in mind each day they show up to work, even if that vision evolves over time. When I first launched Jotform, I was the sole employee. My “aspirational picture” of success today is vastly different from those early days, and it falls on me to continually share that vision with our over 140 employees. That’s not to say they can’t contribute to forming our vision — they often do. But it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s regularly communicated.
I like how Ivy Exec CEO Elena Bajic explains it:
“While the vision for Ivy Exec is mine, I cannot make it a reality on my own. I need the understanding, buy-in, and the enthusiasm of my team to work together collectively to take the company forward, and everybody’s favorite word, ‘scale.’”
With these leadership principles in mind, hopefully, you and your team can work smarter — and more sustainably — toward your shared vision.