Evolution of Leadership
About This Episode
While many of us have settled into our remote work routines, this pandemic has proven to serve as a catalyst for organizations to examine the future of their organizations, as well as redefine the nature of leadership in this digital era. In this episode, host Michelle Boockoff-Badjek welcomes Paul Michelman, Editor in Chief of MIT Sloan Management Review, to discuss the evolving nature of leadership and the future organizations face as they digitally mature.
The views expressed by guests are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Skillsoft.
Michelle BB 00:00:07 Welcome to the edge, a Skillsoft podcast for learners and leaders alike to engage in thought provoking conversations and open dialogue on the topics of learning and growth in the workplace. Today's guest is Paul Michael Mann editor in chief of MIT Sloan management review, which shares with its readers and excitement and curiosity about how the practice of management is transforming in the digital age. You can find it on the web in print, in audio podcast and an apps as well as by a content libraries, including in our very own Skillsoft leadership development program. Welcome
Paul00:00:42 I’m Paul Michelle. Thank you. And thank you so much for having me.
Michelle BB 00:00:45 It's a pleasure to have you here with us today. And I first want to thank you for your partnership. Um, together Skillsoft and thought leaders at MIT, Sloan management review are working together to develop content that prepares leaders with the competencies they need to tackle the most pressing challenges of the digital era and while, um, who could have foreseen all of the challenges that organizations and their leaders would need to navigate, uh, over these last six gosh plus months. So before we get into that, and I know we will get into that. I want to start by distinguishing leadership in the I'm gonna use air quotes here. People can't see me in the digital age. We know technology it's woven into the very fabric of our lives. It's hard to manage anything we do professionally or personally that doesn't leverage technology. Uh, whether you're providing round the clock access to customer service through conversational AI tools or your ensuring food safety through blockchain, like Walmart does, every business is operating in a digital age. And so many are far more digitally mature than even just a few years ago. So I have to ask you what specifically are the skills and capabilities that leaders need to thrive in this digital age, and then conversely, what are the biggest challenges that you see in leadership today?
Paul00:02:05 It's a great question. And it's a complicated one. And I think I begin by saying that while all the organizations are operating in the digital age, I'm not sure equally all are equally aware that they are or appreciate that they are. What I think I really mean is that not all companies are equally down that digital path, right? There's a great deal of variation on the level of digital sophistication or maturity, even across companies in the same industries. And second, not all companies have undertaken digital transformation with the same mindset. For some, it's been mostly about operations that is using digital technologies to increase efficiencies and lower costs, but really with a physical world mindset, meaning they were really just, they're really just doing the same things they used to, but they're using digital technologies to do the old things better. And that leaves most of the value of intelligent technologies off the table.
Paul00:02:59 The most sophisticated companies and leaders are embracing digital technologies as a transformative phenomenon that pervades not just how they do what they do, but what they do in the first place, how they compete and create value, how they address their markets, how decisions get made and who makes them. And this is what, and now finally, I'm getting to an answer to your question, right? That the skills and capabilities leaders need to be get need begin with the willingness and the ability to let go of their legacy assumptions and sees the opportunity to think in new ways to learn as a part of work and to adapt, adapt, and adapt again, the best leaders have that rare ability to set a direction for their teams and organizations while not knowing what their precise destination is going to be. So in this digital age, it's about curiosity, courage, and flexibility, maybe over some of those legacy leadership traits that we think of the words I used, an MIT Sloan management review, where Will's skill and velocity,
Michelle BB 00:04:04 You know, it's really fascinating that you, um, cite this transformation or the fact that that companies are not in the same place, right? So we don't have digital equity. Um, and I think what's interesting is that your point about, we can't just take what we did before and change the media. We actually have to rethink and reimagine how to do that in the first place. And a lot of that I think was born out of this notion of how, how can you lead through change, right? How do you change the workflows? How do you change how people work and how do you change how they think about their work? Um, and that sort of leads me to my next question, because when I think about leadership, um, the structure within an organization has changed. It's evolved because companies have flattened and we know that, and I think that digital maturity has accelerated this evolution. And as a result, we see decision-making being pushed down further in the organization. Individuals are taking on more roles and responsibilities and particularly leadership, whether or not they are designated as leading teams or people, and with leadership becoming more equitable, how do we train organizations more deeply steeped them in these leadership principles to ensure that the leaders not just of today, but the ones of tomorrow are properly.
Paul00:05:27 Let's begin with the premise of your question that organizations have flattened. And I do think that's true in many cases, but kind of as in the case of a company's ability to appreciate the digital phenomenon, right? Not every organization has followed the same kind of path. And I hope that organizations still clinging to traditional hierarchies are paying attention to their more progressive peers because they have a lot to learn. But, but even amongst the organizations that have gotten flatter that removed layers of management and push decision-making further and further to the front lines, the pandemic has been as much of a challenge to distributed leadership as it has been a boon to it. I think, you know, there's been this weird contradiction as companies experience this forced disbursement, a missed a truly unprecedented crisis, many reverted to more traditional leadership structures. Crisis management sometimes does demand this.
Paul00:06:21 So as we ease our way forward, hopefully increasingly out of crisis mode, we'll need to get back to our commitments to broadly distributed decision-making in leadership and then confront the challenge of prepping a much broader, broader group of people to be leaders. And that is all about training formal and informal mandated and encouraged. It's completely unfair to simply tell someone that they are a leader. You need to provide them with tools and experiences kind of inline experiences that enable their development. And it's so important. And I'm quoting MIT, Sloan management review, author GM Petro, Patrick Lee era. We need to recognize that learning is work. It's not on top of work. It is work.
Michelle BB 00:07:07 Oh gosh, I, I love that. And, and you know, this point about kind of going back to more of a hierarchical, um, way of leading, um, feels a little bit troubling at a time of crisis because you'd think that newer models would be able to adapt and be more agile, but I can understand why. I mean, certainly in times of crisis and look, six months ago, you know, we send employees home and I don't think that we had any idea that it would be as prolonged, uh, uh, you know, an, uh, an event as it is, right. We would return to our offices in a matter of weeks. But, you know, I remember back in March, I had a customer call me. And, and when I say March, this was like, right at the beginning, we sent people home on March 12th. I remember the date, but I had a customer call me almost immediately as we began shelter in place.
Michelle BB 00:07:58 And she said, I've got to send 4,000 employees home. The majority of whom have never worked remotely. And I've got managers who've never had to manage or lead in a virtual environment. And what occurred to me when she said that is, you know, I got to forget all the other stuff I do because right now I'm on the food and shelter level of Maslow's hierarchy. Right? It's crazy, but we're six months in now. So we're at a place I think where organizations can start to look a little bit further into the future. Perhaps we're no longer in, in what I'd call immediate crisis mode where there's critical decisions need to be made to navigate the next hour or the next, the next day, the next month. But I do see that as we transition into what I think is really going to be, I don't know if it's a permanent state, but, but certainly something more permanent.
Michelle BB 00:08:48 We're starting to explore what the organization, this new organization is going to look like forward going forward. And I think, um, and I said this before on, uh, I had my mind blown at a conversation I had with, um, Esther Martinez from people matters, but the very definition of work definitions of work workplace and worker are rapidly evolving. Now that work is no longer synonymous with a physical location. And so does this start to open new doors, literally for people? I mean, I've seen ads and articles that are touting these work and learn destination trips, people moving out of cities because there's no reason for them to be there. Are we seeing a sea change in terms of where, how, and when we work,
Paul00:09:34 I don't think there's any doubt about that. As far as how work gets done, we are, you know, what we're experiencing now is going to leave a permanent mark on organizational life. And I think it's for the better, I mean, I feel like I, right now, it doesn't feel like it right now, but I think we're, we're, we're, we are, a lot of our assumptions are being challenged in ways that, that if we capture them right, can have very positive outcomes over the long-term by force. We're learning just what can actually be done remotely and what actually works better in remote environments. And I think that's challenged a lot of our assumptions at the same time, we're learning what can't be replicated on zoom, or go to meeting or slack or Microsoft teams for those organizations that are smart and organized enough to be capturing this great opportunity to learn.
Paul00:10:21 They will be able to create far more flexible and empathetic work environments in the future. And they stand to gain huge advantages in the competition for talent. It take, for example, two ways. Some organizations are thinking about working from home as a long-term option or benefit. There are organizations that have announced permanent remote work options for employees where the employee may be paid less. If they choose to work from home, the rationale being that they can work from anywhere. So they can go live somewhere less expensive than where the company's headquarters are. And this is especially a case for like tech companies in Silicon valley. Then there's the opposite approach companies giving people the option to work from home and then taking the enormous cost savings that they're they're benefiting from from being able to reduce their physical footprint, to fund sophisticated, you know, an ergonomic home office setups for people who choose remote work and maybe even offering them a bump in salary because they cost the company less. So which company would you choose to work for? People are going to remember people and people are going to remember the companies, how companies treated their employees during and coming out of the pandemic. People will talk and reputations will be made often for the better, but also for those who miss the opportunity to truly treat their people right in the remote environment, it's going to be permanent scars.
Michelle BB 00:11:46 So first of all, I want to work for that second company. And I think I do. I'm excited to say that. Um, and I think that that for so many organizations and the ones that I talked to changes on the horizon and this hybrid workforce, whether we work at home, some people work at home, some people work in an office, I think it's, it's here to stay. Um, but for me personally, and for a lot of my peers, one of the most difficult transitions has been adjusting to this notion of being so physically dispersed. We were a co located organization. We are an agile shop. And so some of that is just, you know, it's built a culture and I think the importance of maintaining team and culture cannot be overlooked. But I do think it's harder in this. You know, w when we are all working remotely comradery, it's so essential to happiness and engagement. And I do fear that as we enter a more prolonged state of working remotely, we're not going to be able to sustain culture now, Paul, while there's no playbook, I think for navigating this scenario, what, what advice or what guidance would you give to organizations that are trying to really maintain and drive employee engagement and ensure that their corporate cultures are not only alive, but are thriving,
Paul 00:13:05 Right? So this is a really tough one because we're in the thick of it right now. Um, so let me begin with actually a glass half full point of view for a lot of people working remotely has increased their happiness and their engagement, not put it at risk, but of course that's not everyone. Um, and very few organizational cultures will were built for a hybrid model in mind unless the company was hybrid or co located before going into the last six months. And you said that there's no playbook and leaders should not expect one to emerge anytime soon, we need to study the problem first. So this puts a great deal of pressure on leaders to personalize the work experience for their teams. You know, after all we haven't, we're not all dealing with the events of the past six months through the same context normal we experienced the next six months in any more uniform of a manner that the pandemic has not been a shared experience.
Paul00:14:01 As I've heard it characterized, it's been a concurrent phenomenon that manifested billions of different experiences, right? Based on our personal situations, be it health loved ones, school, age, children, ability to work from home. I mean, any, any, any number of different issues. And that means that leaders need to spend more time one-on-one with people getting to know them better than they've ever had to, to get to know them before and making sure that work works for them. And at the same time, leaders need to consider the broader perspective. They need to talk about their cultures. They need to act their cultures and explain why they are doing what they are doing in the language of the company's culture, reinforce, reinforce, reinforce, you know, and are things you can do. They may sound trite, but they work send people surprises through the mail. Hopefully it'll get their whole social events, right? Some of this is pretty generic, but being a good caring, human, it goes a long way as we figure this stuff out and it can sound really exhausting and it is, but, you know, we're all pioneers right now.
Michelle BB 00:15:12 Yeah. You know, it's interesting. Cause I think one of the brightest spots for me throughout this experience has been the level of empathy. And I think connection that we haven't experienced before, despite the fact that we're not together in person, we're all going through something for the very first time. And I think we have to continue to be there for each other. And we have to, as you said, we have to continue to lead with humanity and emotional intelligence above all. Um, and so when we think about the evolution of leadership and we think about those core skills that I think are going to be so important, right? It's not just the hard, durable job specific skills, but really some of these softer skills that I think are going to be even more important.
Paul00:15:59 I do. I mean, what's crystal clear to me is that our ability to practice empathy, emotional intelligence, which frankly has always been critical management skills will become even more vital in the future, or they have become even more vital over the past six months and they're not going to abate. It may even end, it should push us to reconsider who we want to groom as leaders, whether they're team leaders or senior leaders, it could be, we've got the selection criteria all wrong, right. We still rely on our own mental models that are built by definition on past experiences and on legacy constructs of what leadership is. That's pretty faulty, especially given the state of our world.
Michelle BB 00:16:42 You know, it's, it's interesting because that, I think you're right. It's almost as if we could, you know, I imagine this design thinking workshop where we're, re-imagining how we work in what we do and then how we prize different skills particularly for leaders. And so I think that's, that's interesting. I do want to shift a little bit because I think that we would be remiss if we didn't touch on leadership in today's world, but not just in navigating the global pandemic, but also in helping to champion diversity, equity and inclusion as society, as companies face a monumental cultural awakening and a movement to eliminate systemic racism in our communities and in our organizations. And, you know, uh, at Skillsoft we've taken time for a lot of self-reflection. I can tell you that and we've initiated both change and action. And then on our, on our course and content side, we've always offered DEI training to companies around the globe, but we know that we have to go further to address the issues of and bias in a more productive way, in a way that leads to long-term enduring outcomes. And I know this topic is one that is frequented the pages of MIT Sloan management review to help encourage dialogue on race and understanding our own biases. Can you tell me more about how you are taking a leadership role in publishing on this topic on diversifying your author pool and in bringing more diversity to the publishing industry as a whole?
Paul 00:18:15 Um, yes. I mean, we hope we are playing our small part and, you know, what's interesting for organizations like ours, we're content organizations. So there's two sides to our role here. There's what we do and there's who we are. Right. And you, you kind of address that for Skillsoft and that's how we're thinking about it for, for Sloan management review, as well as, you know, diversity and inclusion have long been topics of interest for us, but it's very clear to us. We have not played nearly as active a role as we could have nor as we intend to. And for us, it does begin with who and what we publish our readers will have seen some very recent material articles, podcasts, webinars, addressing racial injustice, particularly in the U S and looking at the role of organizations to address racial inequality for both their own good and for the good of broader society.
Paul 00:19:03 And as a quick aside, you know, some of the messages that we've heard frequently in the past in particular, that diversity is good for the bottom line may well be true. And frankly, the data certainly says that it is true, but that argument can also sound a little hollow right now. Organizational leaders need to embrace their moral obligations to address racial justice and intersexual inclusion. Not just because it's good for the business, but because it's good. And that's trying, that's the attitude that we are adopting. And as I said, we're not only addressing this issue through what we publish and who we publish. We are addressing it as an organization. Ourselves business publishing is not the most diverse industry in the world. We are not the most diverse organization. And we have failed to this point to do enough to address that we're beginning to do so now, both in terms of recruitment for roles when they become also open, but also, and maybe even more importantly with the long-term in mind, one of the things I'm most excited about as a new internship program that we're developing to help build the pipeline for talent in the publishing industry.
Paul 00:20:09 I'd love to come back sometime in the future and tell you more about it once it's actually launched, but it's something that's coming in the short term.
Michelle BB 00:20:16 Yeah, I think that's fantastic. So, so, you know, when you, when you talk to your readers, when you get feedback from them, are, are they, do you see that sort of increase in or desire for more coverage, different coverage, and in, in what areas, I mean, what are they demanding now that perhaps you didn't see even six to nine months ago?
Paul00:20:36 Um, a lot of the things we're talking about right on the practical level, certainly more about remote leadership, remote work, remote communication, the hybrid organization, kind of new models that emerging culture, um, digital transformation, I mean, kind of these things that have been forced to the surface are the areas where people have the greatest needs. What's interesting. And we just did some, some reader survey is that say the specific issue of addressing, um, you know, the legacy organizational or systemic racism and organizations did not come kind of shooting to the surface in a reader survey. But let me tell you, when we have produced events and content, we are seeing some of the biggest and most engaged audiences we've ever seen. And I think some of that is even though we have published, you know, a good amount of material that we're quite proud of, um, addressing inequality in the past, it's not considered like a signature area for Sloan management review, or it hasn't been in the past. So when people think of us, they're thinking more about kind of more technology oriented, um, some things I hope when we do a survey a year from now that that people are going to be expecting that and demanding more of it from us.
Michelle BB 00:21:50 Yeah. I, you know, w by the way, we're seeing the exact same thing. I mean, we've held a couple of leader camps on various topics within diversity equity and inclusion and the nut, just the participation. So the registration and the attendance, but the engagement, the chat is, I mean, it's amazing to me. And I, I think that, that more than perhaps, um, the requests for content, the, the engagement levels are for me a real sign or a signal that this is critical now, both to leaders and learners alike. Um, you know, we've covered a lot in just a very short amount of time, but I think we've really only scratched the surface. Um, and I, you know, I look forward to having you come back and talk about your intern program as well as many other topics, but, you know, I think that as we close out the conversation, I do wanna, I do want to mention the Skillsoft leadership development program powered by MIT Sloan management review, because it features hundreds of MIT, Sloan management review, authored articles, including a wealth of content aligned with all of the topics that we've talked about today and is designed to build digitally capable leaders.
Michelle BB 00:23:01 So perhaps, perhaps we can end the session, Paul, by talking about some of the upcoming research and content that's on the horizon. I know there's a digital maturity assessment in the works. Yes.
Paul00:23:10 Yeah. So the, the digital maturity assessment, um, comes out of kind of a long-term research collaboration between Sloan management review and Deloitte we've been research collaborators for many, many years. We partnered on a number of different topics, but the most exciting, the most kind of groundbreaking was a four year study on digital transformation. Really one of the landmark studies in digital transformation, uh, it was led by Jerry Kane, a professor at Boston college and by SMRs editorial director, David Kyron, and the word produced a series of seminal annual reports, a wonderful book called the technology fallacy and this digital maturity assessment for the Skillsoft leadership development program that we are co-developing. And the assessment is based on the whole of the four year research, which revealed a set of characteristics, both organizational and personal, that defined what we call digital maturity. And that is how far along the digital journey, the digital transformation journey a company is. For example, one of the most essential elements of digital maturity is the organization's ability to work in cross-functional teams, teams that really blow through traditional silos. The assessment will help leaders understand where they and their organizations are today and help them plot a learning path to continue and hopefully accelerate their digital journeys. And we're really excited to launch it with Skillsoft.
Michelle BB 00:24:43 Oh, we are, we are thrilled. And to everyone out there who is interested in learning more, I promise you, will we be, we will be posting and sharing as soon as it's available many thanks to my guests today. Paul Michael Mann editor in chief of MIT Sloan management review, I do encourage you to read and listen and share MIT Sloan management review, as well as visit skillsoft.com to learn more about the Skillsoft leadership development program powered by MIT Sloan management review. Paul, thank you so much. This was a lot of fun.
Paul 00:25:15 It was a lot of fun.
Michelle BB 00:25:15 And to everyone out there, thank you for tuning into this and every episode of the edge as we unleash our edge together,
About Our Guest
As editor in chief of MIT Sloan Management Review, Paul leads editorial strategy and operations for one of the world’s most influential sources of new ideas for business leaders. He is also the host of MIT SMR’s Three Big Points podcast.
About Our Host
As Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle leads a global marketing organization, focused on transforming today’s workforce for tomorrow’s economy. Since joining the company, she has been responsible for Skillsoft’s global marketing strategy, which includes generating awareness, driving preference, and building affinity for Skillsoft. Additionally – and perhaps most importantly – Michelle serves as the company's brand evangelist, helping to build a vibrant community of passionate learners.
With more than 25 years of marketing, branding, and strategy experience, Michelle has made it her personal mission to support the advancement of women in business. Prior to Skillsoft, she served as Chief Marketing Officer of IBM Watson, where she was instrumental in developing the first “Women Leaders in AI” program, which honors women who put AI to work across industries and around the globe. She also served as the global head of marketing for The Weather Company, an IBM Business, helping companies understand how to anticipate, plan for, and ultimately make better decisions – with greater confidence – in the face of weather.
Michelle is a prolific speaker on a range of topics, including the war for talent, digital transformation, and marketing in a post-pandemic world. She covers these topics and more as the host of Skillsoft's podcast, The Edge, now in its second season. She has authored countless papers covering a range of business and marketing topics, was at the center of Skillsoft’s leadership role in DEI through free “Leadercamps,” and has taught two Percipio courses on the Pink Pandemic and Public Speaking.
Michelle is also a founding member of CMO Huddles, a group dedicated to bringing together and empowering highly effective B2B CMOs to share, care, and dare each other to greatness. Michelle holds a Master’s degree from Simmons University and sits on the pro side of the Oxford comma debate.