I recently spoke with the CEO of a large, multi-layered global organization. After six decades of building operational strength through a command and control/top-down structure, employee communication has become an area of overwhelming concern. The pace of technological change and ubiquity of social media as a mode of human connection has completely changed the way organizations must disseminate information.
As we talked, this CEO delved deeper into the source of this new challenge. Leaders once had full command over the clarity, reach and speed with which messages were dispersed among their staff. But the rising level of digital chatter and pervasiveness of social media have undermined the traditional model. His people are as likely to hear news about their organization from external sources as from controlled internal channels.
When questioned about the root of the problem, he had a ready answer. “It’s leadership.” Particularly within a large, multifaceted organization, there’s an immense volume of information being circulated. If there is any insufficiency in leadership, the communication flow gets broken.
Once hierarchical, today’s structure is not siloed. Even if an organization is not a formal Holacracy, there has been a cultural shift to recognizing that everyone is a thinking, productive, mindful contributor. For some leaders, a horizontal structure means renouncing the ego that for so long emboldened the best executives. Today’s exemplary leaders are proving the value of an organizational culture in which everyone is encouraged to contribute, and which prioritizes authentic human connection. In such an empowerment structure, those who listen and share first-hand information with co-workers emerge as leaders. And those people can be found at every level, from manager to the mailroom.
It’s worthwhile noting the irony. The Information Age has produced seemingly limitless ways to communicate with others anyone, anywhere, anytime. The accelerating pace of communication means that the world is noisier. Information is shared faster. It’s no longer reasonable to expect that a small cloister of executives can get ahead of the message or rise above the cacophony. In this environment, a bigger bullhorn does not make a better leader. In fact, the opposite is true.
The model of the effective leadership has changed. Individuals who prioritize trust and creativity over policy and process are at the helm of some of the most innovative, productive organizations in the world. Communication within these organizations is human-to-human (H2H). If technology (like social media) is engaged, it is merely a vehicle to support the flow of information and dialog.
The H2H model thrives off authenticity and humility. Within this model, leaders prioritize creating space for innovation over striving to be seen as the smartest person in the organization. Micro-management and a ‘buck stops here’ mentality has been replaced by an attempt to empower those who are invested in helping the organization to grow and compete.
We know that genuine connectedness cannot be coerced, but it can be prioritized. But as we have discussed, the sustained success of an organization hinges on its ability to adapt or alter its course through the connections it makes internally and externally.
Many of today’s leading organizations are succeeding by encouraging its people to pursue maximum productivity and creativity. Aware that it takes dozens of steps to reach a decision, these organizations are structured to encourage and facilitate open communication. A culture of honesty, vulnerability and courageous ideation is replacing the traditional command and control structure.
Toffler Associates consults with many executives like this CEO, who is facing the challenge of building and sustaining resilient, agile and high-functioning teams in this new information economy. We have seen time and again that the key to navigating this disruption is the ability to align activities with priorities, and that the quality of leadership is paramount to the success of that effort.
To build a legacy, leaders must be brave enough to accept apprehension and be transparent, rather than hiding behind an organizational structure. In our rapid-fire world of digital information flow, continuous face-to-face communication may be the only way to control the message and open dialog up and down the chain. That means accepting the disruption and creating space within the organization for emerging leaders to collaborate and innovate with confidence.
Now is the time for leaders to understand, adapt to and inspire human connection.
Deborah Westphal is a passionate humanist who has guided our era’s top minds and leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections and resilience for a secure and sound future. Her career spans more than 30 years in government agencies and Fortune 100 companies, and on virtually every continent. In 1999, Alvin Toffler tapped her as one of the founding members of his eponymous consulting firm, Toffler Associates. From 2007 through 2018, she served as the firm’s CEO and has since contributed her experience and knowledge as a member of the board. Through her work, she has guided notable organizations including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Marriott, U.S. Air Force, Baxter International, Bayer, Heinz, Microsoft, Koppers, PPG, DARPA, National Security Agency, Loral Space Systems, NASA, Qwest, Verizon, and Westinghouse. Deborah’s empathetic and thought-provoking style helps readers spot patterns that signify future risks and opportunities. She’s a sought-after speaker and writer who provided the Foreword to After Shock. Her book, Convergence: Technology, Business, and the Human-Centric Future, was published in May 2021 by Unnamed Press. Find her at deborahwestphal.com.
Toffler Associates is a future-focused strategic advisory firm. Our Future Proof® business consulting approach helps global leaders understand how future shifts impact current decisions so they can take advantage of opportunity, manage risk, and create future value.
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