Re-Imagining Leadership 2020

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2020 has been a tumultuous year so far. We are facing a health crisis of historic proportions and there is a lot of uncertainty about what the post-pandemic world will look like. Even as we attempt to figure this out, we have protests and unrest roiling the entire country. The fallouts are surely going to be long-term, changing how technology platforms participate in political discourse, what kind of companies talented folks choose to work for, and where/how they will live and work. Our entire lifestyle, including our value system, is up for re-evaluation. What will the rest of the 20’s decade look like?

For starters, we could see a reversing trend of globalization and urbanization. With more and more companies announcing remote WFH for the longer term – Twitter, Facebook, MasterCard, JP Morgan have been the first off the block – talent may no longer be restricted by geography. The shift to video-conferencing/remote-work will also reduce the need for business travel and sales calls. Additionally, with people wary about crowded urban cities and public areas, there could be an exodus to smaller towns. On a larger scale, countries are likely to look at reducing dependence on global sourcing and markets. The COVID-19 pandemic has also importantly exposed the vulnerabilities of global supply chains that largely run on lean principles.  The healthcare and education sectors, both of which are notoriously slow to adopt innovations, are now embracing technology and upending long-established models of delivery. All in all, this pandemic may have fundamentally changed how we work, live, study, etc. in a matter of just a few weeks – what would have taken decades otherwise!

One thing is for certain – the last few months of enforced restrictions have hurtled us into a new decade of transformation, ironically amidst a full-blown recession with over 20% unemployment! History tells us that every recession is an opportunity for the right companies with the right leaders. Steve Jobs launched the iconic iPod in 2001, right in the middle of the dotcom bust and 9/11. Reed Hastings guided Netflix with its most critical transition to streaming post the 2008 recession and the company has gone from strength to strength since then. Amazon was nearly written off after the dotcom bust. It not only survived but thrived to the point of becoming the most valued company today under Jeff Bezos. Airbnb’s rags-to-riches story was kicked off, incredibly, during the last recession as well. Some other famous stories to emerge from the 2008 recession include WhatsApp, Uber, and Groupon.

Needless to say, these success stories happened not because of just one person at the top, but due to the collective effort of an entire team of very able, far-thinking, aggressive functional leaders who helped and supported them. Steve Jobs had his A-star team comprising of Jony Ive, Tony Fadell, Phil Schiller, and Eddy Cue, among others – all of who not only executed Jobs’ vision but also contributed new product ideas, walking shoulder to shoulder with their boss. Reed Hastings summed it up aptly when he famously said “I take pride in making as few decisions as possible, as opposed to making as many as possible,” to highlight his dependence on a stellar team. “It’s creating a sense [in your employees] that ‘If I want to make a difference, I can make a difference.’” says Hastings about how Netflix has managed multiple big pivots in its short life.

The bottom line is that the type of team you pick has a huge impact on your organization’s destiny during tough times. On one hand, there are those that can help ensure survival by cutting costs, holding on to cash, and keeping the company afloat.  And then there are others who go a step further by leveraging the fundamental shifts brought about by the crisis to help you create the next trillion-dollar company. This breed of transformational leaders is visionary, inspiring, risk-taking, and forward-thinking. They are focussed on remaining agile in a constantly changing environment. Depending on where you want to see yourself, this is the time to surround yourself with the appropriate set of leaders – the ones who can help you transform the organization. You may find some right under your nose or you might have to bring them from outside.  Identifying and putting this core team together could be the most critical piece of work that you as the CEO or key investor will be doing during these extraordinary times. 

Which brings us to the question – What sets these folks apart? How do you know what traits to look for, and where to find them? In my years of hiring transformational leaders, I have learned that there are SEVEN key characteristics that set them apart.  They are:

1) Ability to Take Risks: Seeking risk and putting themselves in uncomfortable situations comes naturally to them. Remember the friend who decided to quit when he was all but assured of the CEO’s job because he wanted to ‘do something different?’ He’s most likely a change leader in the making. This inherent appetite for risk is a common trait and they believe that calculated risk-taking is a necessary and integral part of their job.

2) The ’Vision’ Thing – Ability to See Past Today And Tomorrow: I have always noticed a restlessness and a sense of urgency that is palpable in transformational leaders. It is not that they aren’t calm or patient; they just have a sense of being propelled by a tomorrow that is so clear and inevitable in their mind’s eye, that the future can’t come fast enough! They are not content with the status quo. They have a track record of hacking their industry, their product, their vertical – putting every industry assumption or sacred cow on the chopping block – and being willing to sacrifice everything. They dream big, but back it up with a design and concrete steps about how to get there.

3) Ability to be Decisive: A logical extension of the first two qualities leads us to the third – Decisiveness. Transformational leaders make very quick decisions. They are instinctive, and driven more by present value than by their judgment of the potential value. A lot of times, the reasons they would do something will be because they see it as a future reality. Too much thinking or analysis will not change it.

4) Ability to Learn Fast: They are continuous learners and willing to constantly step outside their comfort zones. They have an innate ability to learn on the fly and quickly pick up new things, to stay ahead of the curve and capitalize on new opportunities for innovation – even before it’s on the radar for others.

5) Ability to Communicate and Inspire: Clear communication is key to their success as they believe strongly in what they are doing, and they want their people to buy into it. They are charismatic leaders and adept in motivating and rallying team members around their vision of the future.

6) Need to be Independent: Independence ranks very high in personality traits for these leaders. They feel shackled if they are told the end goal, and the path to follow is clearly laid out. They would rather chart the course themselves. These individuals are mavericks, and I am very careful to use this word because it is often misinterpreted in our pop culture to mean rebellious or eccentric. They are unorthodox or independent-minded people who will question every status quo, and then choose whether or not they want to behave in a certain way.

7) Desire to be Modest About Themselves: It is hard to spot transformational leaders because they don’t see themselves as special. We must make the distinction clearly here: they do have a healthy self-respect and they definitely feel good about themselves for pulling off what others didn’t think was possible, but they don’t define themselves by their accomplishments. They are not attention-seeking by nature, and fame seems, to them, a somewhat unnecessary diversion.

As you set out to figure how to react in this changed scenario, I’m sure you will ask yourself if you have the right team to, not just survive, but to catapult you forward. Perhaps this is the time and opportunity to carefully assemble your transformational team of transformational leaders. Helping our clients find such leaders is what we do best @AnuPartha. Do give us a shout if we can be of help!

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