Three Leadership Trends
Maybe in a few years, more people will work from home, because we’ve realized for many office workers, that’s a benefit.
Maybe there will be a massive reshuffling and search for talent, because large remote companies can pull the marquee talent from any region, leaving workers to compete with not just those in their markets, but with everyone.
Anyone who has been thinking about the future of work has been working through these realities. What has been less explored is how leadership will change.
While none of us know what the future holds, we can zoom out and see some trends happening long before the pandemic. There are three that interests me for leaders at the moment:
- The rapid “flattening” of organizations
- Increasing domain specialization and focused expertise professional
- The organizing of cross-functional teams of those specialized workers
Each of these three has implications for how we develop as leaders and those who will step up to the challenges involved.
Specialization of skills
Pop by a group of liberal arts academics or students at a dinner party and you might overhear them discussing a common hypothetical: “Who was the last person to know everything there was to know at the time?”
When humans knew less, you could know everything available to you. Human knowledge is so vast, it’s an almost impossible idea to comprehend. But when published books were rare, and we were developing our knowledge, it was possible to know it all.
Whoever that person was, they probably died (at least) a couple of hundred years ago.
Today, we may be biologists, or accountants, or programmers. But we don’t know everything about biology, or accounting, or programming. We probably don’t know everything about our specialty within that larger domain. It’s not possible anymore.
To become effective, we zoom in on a specialty to deliver the work. That’s the nature of the complex systems we inhabit now.
Because people are more specialized, it’s harder to group them and manage them from a position of shared expertise. The traditional “apprentice” model of one blacksmith training another will not work in IT. You have one manager with staff responsible for different technologies and different purposes.
How we communicate, facilitate and develop people speaking different languages of expertise, and then organize them into effective teams that tackle combined issues, is a new and defining trend in leadership.
It’s not just coordinating those various experts: there is a major risk from turnover that comes from a specialized workforce with few redundancies of expertise. (Ko, 2021)
Leaders need to learn not only how to work with experts, but how to keep them and the specialized skills they possess.
This specialization leads to the next trend: the flattening of the workforce.
The Flattening Workforce
With increasing domain knowledge comes larger numbers of individual contributors. It makes less sense to monitor and direct people when they are the most knowledgeable in their field.
However, the role of the leaders then changes to coordinating all these individual contributors in a coherent direction. That’s difficult.
Those leaders face extra difficulty because those contributors are down in the details of their field. It’s hard to gain the perspective from the vision. They are tending to the trees so closely, they may have forgotten they are in a forest at all.
You can see this when people in domain experts view their field as the most important priority for the company. No matter what their domain, human nature will lead them to value it highly.
With less structured command and direction, effective organizations need facilitators and the ability to organize and set vision.
After that, the next challenge is communicating that vision and keeping momentum.
The flat workforce has many benefits for innovation, rapid execution, and assignment of those expert performers where they can do the most good. They are also challenging for traditional firms to implement. (Kastelle, 2013)
This makes leadership skills in coordinating a flat workforce (which has cross-functional teams and more specialization) is even more critical.
One of the ongoing tools for doing that in the face of complex problems is through the use of cross-functional teams.
More Cross-Functional Teams
Our people are becoming more specialized, and the challenges we face have grown more complex, but they have not become more narrow. They require specialized knowledge from many perspectives and diverse viewpoints that is combined into comprehensive solutions.
Specialists need to form teams and work together toward common goals.
This is where cross-functional teams become important. A cross-functional team is where individual specialists and pulled together to solve a specific need. They might address a project with a defined deliverable, for example.
Some traits of cross-functional teams that make them an interesting challenge for leaders:
- We draw them from different parts of the organization, often with different reporting chains (e.g., IT operations, R&D, operations, marketing, etc.)
- They may never have worked together before, and may lack personal familiarity with one another (and therefore not have trust and rapport)
- The teams are transitory, so they may break apart and reshape periodically
- Individual contributors might have responsibilities split across many roles
- They may come with different expectations, culture, and so on from their respective roles
Cross-Functional teams are flatter, more diverse, and less defined in their leadership chain. This means that leadership on these teams will require more influence-driven awareness, and mastery of a more democratic leadership style.
These teams are being charged with more and more of the important, disruptive, and transformational work in organizations, and we are only just learning how to lead them effectively.
A major component of leadership in cross-functional teams is stepping up to lead when one’s area of expertise is involved and being able to facilitate the shift in leadership between the team members as the situation changes. (Aime, Et al., 2014)
Learning to Adapt as Leaders
Each of these trends has implications for how we lead and how we think about leadership.
The culture of work is changing, and the structures we used to take for granted need to change too. The conversation so far has been about the future of what work looks like for all of us. That’s important, but we can’t forget how we work together toward a common goal.
Leaders, both current and aspiring, can do their part by understanding these trends and how to adapt.
Now that you know of the three fields, the next posts in this series will address how leaders can improve their handling of them.
• Aime, Federico; Humphrey, S.; DeRue, D. S.; Paul, J. B. . “The riddle of heterarchy: Power transitions in cross-functional teams.” Academy of Management Journal 57.2 (2014): 327-352. https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/amj.2011.0756
• Kastelle, Tim. “Hierarchy is overrated.” Harvard Business Review 20 (2013): 1-4. https://hbr.org/2013/11/hierarchy-is-overrated
• Ko, Yea Hee. “Unpacking the perils and pitfalls of personal specialization in knowledge-intensive organizations.” Academy of Management Proceedings. Vol. 2021. No. 1. Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management, 2021. https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/AMBPP.2021.211