Today’s world is powered by the most diverse workforce in history. Businesses, non-profit organizations and institutions of all shapes and sizes are experiencing dramatic change in the composition of their workforce – due to alterations in the economic landscape, technological advances, globalization, and – for the first time - members of five generations working, competing, learning and leading together. The very nature of our work has changed with the continuing rise of the “knowledge worker”. In the 21st century, knowledge now moves at the speed of light, and the challenges to the modern worker are historic.
In addition to posing challenges, these changing demographics present tremendous opportunities for today’s organizations, and companies that grab a hold of their diversity can do much more than simply “accept” or “embrace” it; they can actually leverage it as a competitive advantage.
To do so, today’s leaders must set aside old practices and create new ways to lead, and some of our most valuable lessons around creation of new realities can be derived from the arts.
Creative writing has always intrigued me – and its lessons continue to play into my leadership style. In this essay, I will explore the following leadership lessons, internalized through my toils in creative writing, and explain how these learnings can help today’s uniquely challenged leaders create the future, versus simply trying to predict it:
- Lesson 1: Unlock potential through empowerment
- Lesson 2: Move away from linear thinking in employee development
- Lesson 3: Experiment, Experiment, Experiment
- Lesson 4: Find your authentic voice
LESSON 2: MOVE AWAY FROM LINEAR THINKING IN EMPLOYEE DEVELOPMENT
Today’s leaders must move past treating all their employees the same, and basing development on where the employee fits on a linear track.
Building a complex, yet cohesive story, via nonlinear methods is at the heart of creative writing.
One of the first things I learned in beginning the creative writing process is that it is deceivingly nonlinear. You can skip past writing “chapter 2” right away because you think of a great idea that transcends the current build up but makes more sense for “chapter 3”, you can be finishing up the last line of the book and then suddenly realize that you haven’t invested enough into introducing the characters to the reader in chapter 1.
Traditionally training investments, promotion strategies and general development programs follow very linear and predictable paths based on things like tenure, job function or title. This method can work when all employees are the same, but falls apart the more unique the individual’s needs are. Just by the very nature of being predictable these linear methods cause opportunities to be lost.
Moving away from this linear approach, in employee development is imperative in getting the most of a diverse, changing workforce. People are an organizations most valuable resource, and are nonlinear in nature - in order to maximize the return from your people, today’s leaders must not treat them as such.
In fact, the practice of nonlinear management can be applied to everything from developing software products using agile methodologies (many tech companies do this in large capacities today) to manufacturing, and I argue that we should approach people development the same way.
So how can this be applied? It demands a new way of thinking.
Here are a few example scenarios:
- Promotion and Advancement - Managers should not promote simply based on tenure if they hope to maximize the potential of this diverse workforce. The pathway to “management” should not be a linear path from individual contributor – eg. ‘After Darren has 10 years’ experience as an engineer he is ready to be the engineering manager’.
Management requires a distinct skill-set and should be treated as such. Results not tenure are already beginning to hold higher weight in the promotion process, and this must be embraced.
- Learning - Managers should not necessarily prevent employees from gaining experiences x, y and z until only after they have gained experiences a, b and c. For example, employees at lower levels with management aspirations should be allowed to learn about management and leadership (perhaps through shadowing or even job-swap programs), while learning about their current competencies instead of having to first master their current competencies before moving to the next.
This becomes particularly important in today’s workplace where scenarios, such as the aforementioned “less experienced manager” occur.
- Tailored Benefits and Career Development Programs - To truly put the human at the center, managers must know the human. To authors that means the characters of the story and to managers that means their employees. Managers must not treat all employees the same in terms of opportunities provided and must tailor programs to life-stage, generation and other demographical attributes. This development and training should be perpetual throughout one’s career and not stop once they have remained in role for an amount of years.
At the heart, linear methods impose order above creativity and don’t account for the complex nature of today’s diverse organizations and their development. This can still exist in pockets, but not as a strategy as it undermines the power of the employee. Moving away from this, doesn’t imply abandoning all structure – structure is still very important – but the structure should be focused on empowering the employee to be successful not the leader to impose their will.
Real Example – Nonlinear employee development through Reverse Mentoring