The rate and scale of change today is unprecedented in human history. Inevitably this means that the way we learned to lead workers and learners is under pressure to evolve, and not all leaders will make the transition well.
The good news is that the intersection of leadership and technology doesn’t have to be the scene of a deadly collision. We don’t need a crystal ball to draw reasonable inferences about what this implies for essential qualities of leadership.
Like it or not, disruptive change is upon us
At least three trends are converging that dramatically complicate how we reach, teach, and lead.
Mobility means that every moment of our lives is being invaded
Mobile devices have blurred the lines between personal and professional spaces and while statistics vary demographically, ownership and usage continue to grow. Even sleeping with a mobile is a growing trend.
Content overwhelm is increasing the pressure on attention and meaning
Some estimates are that 90% of all the data created in human history have been created in the last two years. To be sure, data, information, knowledge, and wisdom aren’t exactly the same things, but the overwhelming amount of stuff will likely increase our difficulty in two things: getting and keeping attention, and helping people understand context or meaning.
Channels of communication are exploding
Beyond content being broadcast at us, the number of channels through which we’re connecting and relating is similarly exploding. Phones became vehicles for email and text messaging, and now the majority of the most-used apps globally are for communication.
As work and learning shift, so are the demands on leadership
I recently spoke out-of-country and booked a room via www.airbnb.com. My host and roommate was an expatriate from his Southeast Asian country, working for a global bank. As we got to know each other, I learned that he and his teammates spend a lot of time communicating via smart phone apps from their personal accounts. Why? Because it works, it helps them get work done, and their organisation’s official inside-the-firewall apps were clumsy and slow. The intent wasn’t to be subversive; it was to meet productivity demands.
There is no simple answer, and the story is simply an analogy for a larger challenge. On one side are leaders holding onto in-person communication with white knuckles, and they miss the opportunity for reach, scale, and to be perceived more highly by those they lead. On the other side are those who live and breathe via technology, and they miss the intimacy and impact of connecting in-person.
Consider five new skills for leadership communication
As the environment and context for leadership change, what might we infer about how leaders need to grow their communication skills? I propose five things at the intersection of communication and technology you may not find on most lists.
Technology options are like neighbourhoods. Each has its own culture and custom. The challenge is that “being present” is now more than phones, email, and posting on your organisation’s blog. Showing up is not hard, but it is different.
Stay focused on people first. You can easily learn the particulars of how a new technology works, but your goal is to reach (and move) hearts and minds.
Example: social networks vary in purpose and usage, but if that’s where your people are, a simple smart phone app gives you the chance to “hang out and listen.” Try picking one you’ve never used and asking yourself, “How is this medium shaping the expectations of my people?”
Listening isn’t a new skill, but a new economy brings a new context. The top reason why people post on social networks is to entertain, which tells us a lot about them. Even in professional contexts, what someone shares gives insight into their values and personality type.
Get a bigger picture view of someone by “taking a step back” from an individual communication event.
Example: search your email on an individual’s name to find and review their communication over time, paying attention to their style. Look at one or more online profiles (e.g., LinkedIn) to get a sense of how they “dress themselves.” Ask yourself, “If this person were in the same room as me, would they be formal or informal? All business or wanting to talk about their kids or getting to know others?”
Total mobility and access often means that the information you share could be easily findable by those you lead. Sharing more runs the risk of adding to the overwhelm of the world they live in. Instead, remember that anybody can share your facts, but nobody can tell your story or share your unique point of view.
Annotate what you share with a comment that adds additional value by helping them focus on what is interesting or important.
Example: instead of simply sending someone a link to an article, add something like, “Good article, but #4 is one we should take to heart.” Ask yourself, “How can I add value to their day by saving them trying to ‘figure it out’?”
Real time (synchronous) technologies like audio conference or web/video conferencing enables conversation and collaboration in ways that are more flexible and intimate than asynchronous (non-real time) modalities. The problem is that there are so many “talk at you” conference calls and webinars that multitasking is rampant and expected.
Consciously pause to ask questions and invite dialogue more frequently than in an in-person meeting.
Example: using video conferencing increases accountability and personal connection, but set expectation in advance in the invitation. Use personal names more frequently to re-engage attention.
Classically, wayfinding is helping people navigate physical spaces. It’s a good analogy, though, for a world where work and learning are no longer places. In a digital world the equivalent is being conscious about how you share content so that it’s easily findable in the future.
Give identities to content groupings in shared file systems to 1) add value by saving others time in searching and finding and 2) avoid adding more noise to email inboxes.
Example: create shared file systems with specific labels and systems of organisation. Establish permissions to ensure security when appropriate. Ask yourself, “How can I lead by example for how to access content from integrated systems (such as Microsoft Outlook) or a mobile device.”
The bottom line
A technology-driven world is reshaping the context of leadership, but not the objective. As John Maxwell puts it, “Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.” And those who succeed in the new economy will be those who evolve past connecting to technology to connecting through it to reach hearts and minds.