Rewriting the Leadership Code for 2018 and Beyond

December 11, 2017 | Bill Catlette | HCI
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In a recent discussion with business school students, I premised a definition of business ethics on the phrase, “You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by … and that the rest of us can live with,” borrowing heavily from Graham Nash’s 1970 hit tune, “Teach Your Children.”

The “code” if you will, represents the guardrails that we (individually and institutionally) erect and try to operate within while traversing the path of life.

As surely as oceans are rising and reclaiming waterfront property from Barrow to Miami, those guardrails are moving, with and without our involvement. There is a confluence of factors causing that movement, things like the recent volcanic eruption of pent-up workplace sexual harassment outings, the increasingly disposable nature of the employment relationship and a rapidly morphing definition of what constitutes acceptable leadership behavior. The impact of these shifts on how we conduct business going forward will be significant.

Against that backdrop, as we prepare to begin a new year, there are some opportunities and hazards that will likely play out in the workplace as the code continues to evolve.

Business emulates sports

Given that a sizeable segment of those who run the business world are sports-minded, it’s no wonder that we see sports playing an outsized role in how business is conducted. It’s visible in the business lexicon, in our competitive spirit and reward mechanisms (to include the championship rings).

In much the same fashion that professional sports teams are now acting more quickly than ever, even in mid-season, to remove players and coaches who are slipping or no longer fitting their scheme (witness the mid-season benching of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and the firing of Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale, only 12 games into an 82-game season), we can expect our own employment relationships to become more tenuous. Let’s face it, there are only nine people in the country with a decent lifetime gig. They wear black robes to work and sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. The rest of us are more or less gig workers.

With many organizations having done away with periodic performance reviews, and relieved managers from the obligation to do any coaching because those things take real work (there’s no credible app for that), your first hint that it’s time to pack your stuff and get out might be a tweet or text announcing a new lineup with one name conspicuously absent … yours.

Rather than something that should alarm us, this simply confirms what’s been true all along - that our destiny is in our own hands, where it belongs ... and that’s a good thing! Celebrate it, but be prepared. Your development has become pretty much a DIY proposition.

With 6 million or so current job vacancies in the U.S. (BLS), it’s an ideal time to job hunt, or at the very least, tune your bow and sharpen arrows in preparation. This is a perfect time to update your resume(s) and LinkedIn profile, and to take an interview or two, if only to confirm that you have good reason to be happy with your current job. Moreover, it’s an opportunity to refresh your interview skills. (Baseball players take batting practice before every game. You should, too.) FYI, the volume of people at all parts of the job spectrum currently using LinkedIn ProFinder coaches to get some interview practice is off the chart! My experience suggests that this is especially true of women who are seeking to enter or progressing through leadership roles.

Leadership skills are at a premium

While what passes for leadership in our nation’s capital is in freefall, the bar for acceptable behavior and performance for leaders in the private sector is going up -- way up. Every day we see unmistakable evidence that corporate boards take a very dim view of those who commit (or tolerate) ethics breaches, sexual harassment or fail to perform. Among other things, this will bring front and center the obligation of HR professionals to pre-emptively identify and cause the organization to deal with problem behavior.

Having effectively reached a state of full, if not altogether fulfilling employment, evidenced by the fact that 100,000 people quit their jobs daily, our reputations as leaders are projected like a stoplight that informs -- warns would-be applicants with a green, yellow, or red signal. Those of us who lead others for a living need to be at the top of our game, or else we will find ourselves at the end of a chronically empty and unproductive bench, wearing a blinking red “Leader of Last Resort” signal.

In the final analysis, there has never been a better time to be a principled, inclusive, open-eared, clear-eyed leader who puts customer and team interests before self-interest. If you will truly commit to attaining that stature, you will find yourself standing out in a good way, attracting a herd of loyal, high producing Contented Cows, as we’ve been known to call them.