Over the past couple of decades, the workplace has changed dramatically. Technology advancements have transformed how we work and how we communicate, and we now place a higher value on health care, work conditions and getting ahead. To add to that complexity, some workplaces now have multiple generations of employees, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds and with different expectations for their leaders.
When the COVID crisis hit, these underlying trends were magnified as companies grappled with the ripple effect of the virus in the workplace. Changes that might have taken a decade to develop organically came fast and furiously over the last 18 months.
Take the issue of remote and hybrid workforces. Before COVID, the notion that large swaths of the world economy would shift entirely to remote work almost overnight was unfathomable. Yet, amid the crisis it was the best option for countless businesses. Then another surprise: For many companies, not only did things not fall apart—productivity actually spiked.
Now, as vaccination rates rise and the most immediate threat of the virus seems to have slowed down, CEOs face a fresh challenge as they ask their employees to return to their desks. Why should they return to the office at all? It isn’t that leaders should bend to the crowd, but they do need to make their case; they need to have an answer to that question.
This principle extends beyond the back-to-work conversation. The pandemic has in many ways sparked introspection; it has raised questions about nearly every facet of our lives and forced us to weigh their importance. The death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests spurred a nationwide conversation about racial justice and inclusivity. Corporations faced an unprecedented—if overdue—level of scrutiny around their hiring and employment practices through this lens.
Any workplace a boss walks into now is not the same as the one he or she left in March 2020.
The reality is that CEOs today are confronting a myriad of unprecedented challenges, from technology changes to social issues. Leaders used to be able to rely on a well-worn playbook for dealing with management challenges because the types of problems were recurring. But when the changes are coming so quickly—and more of the challenges are new—that old playbook is less useful.
Throughout my career working in human resources and corporate coaching, I have had a front row seat to the ever-changing matrix of challenges CEOs face, whether it’s growing the business or retaining talent. Now, more than ever, business leaders need to break out of their bubbles and welcome a greater variety of voices into their kitchen cabinets.
Just as someone wouldn’t ask a soccer coach to teach them how to swim, CEOs need to tap coaches with expertise that matches the problem they seek to tackle. The person best-suited to help a business leader navigate a conversation with her employees about racial justice is unlikely to be the best person to guide her through the process of bringing her staff back to the office.
CEOs need a nimble network of advisers they can pull from at any time as the workplace continues to transform at a rapid pace. Here are three key guidelines as leaders assemble that network:
Look in new places. Go beyond direct reports. Your direct reports are a valuable group and often hand-picked. But sometimes “group think” seeps in. Get a pulse from people in the middle and bottom of the workforce. Their views may surprise you but guide you in an enlightened way.
Seek variety. Seek someone who thinks differently than you do, has a successful track record and whom you trust. Some executives have a skill in spotting trends, embracing changes and viewing the world from a different perspective.
Get informal feedback: Walk around, talk to employees you normally do not see, listen in on customer service calls, and have informal, no-notes lunches with your human resources, communications and finance staff. What are they hearing about employees’ concerns? What are their concerns? How can the company help? Make it a practice to do this on a regular basis so your presence seems normal and not special.