In my previous article on talent development in open organizations, I explained how senior and upper-level managers can help young leadership talent develop without taking an entirely "hands off" approach. The truth is that leadership talent rarely develops on its own, and if organizations wishing to become more open want to see open leaders thrive, upper management has a specific job to do. It must create balance—not only between the organization’s conventional management principles and more open ones, but also (as I’ve explained before) between reason and feeling, head and heart. In other words, this involves creating a balance between individual ego and collective needs.
These are the primary conditions for getting the entire organization moving in an open direction.
At the beginning of what I’ve called your organization’s "hybrid phase," the "top" of the organization consists primarily of leaders and managers. To achieve a better balance, management will have to allow leaders into the boardroom as well. This is because, as I’ve mentioned previously, managers tend to train more managers, not necessarily more leaders. To help their organizations become more open, current leaders need to break the pattern of allowing only people with similar skills participate in leadership activities; they need to be open to new dynamics by seeking collaboration with leaders who embody open mindsets and behaviors (if your don’t allow this, conventional ways of thinking, managing, and behaving will remain intact). They must remain curious, recognizing that newer generations of leaders may be tired of simply being told what to do and instead want to be invited to contribute.
Fostering open leadership mindsets and behaviors is necessary for moving forward and completing the transition from conventional organization to open one. Open doors for talented leaders, be open to learning from each other, and open new forms value by respecting each other’s different behaviors, mindsets, and views.
In most organizations, this kind of motivated leadership talent is already present; you just need to give it a place to add value to your organization’s open transformation.
Let’s examine how this might work.
Open and respectful
First, let’s discuss the role emergent leaders need to play in this process.
These leaders will have to approach seasoned and authoritative managers openly and respectfully, recognizing that these managers have acquired their current positions for a reason and have served the organization for many years. Moreover, they should recognize that these longstanding managers are opening themselves up to the transformation process, an initial step that could be somewhat nerve-wracking for them. Patience and understanding are key.
Of course, the same dynamic is necessary in reverse. Learning happens in both directions. By acting as a team, managers will gradually gain insight into (and understanding of) the ways of thinking and behaving that are more common in open organizations. This enables them to adapt to them gradually and become proficient in them over time. Emerging leaders shouldn’t expect change to occur instantly.
If your organization has establishing systems for building effective connections between senior leaders and emerging leadership talent during the hybrid phase (and both are willing to learn from each other) you’ll see the possibility for real change. The kind of leadership the 21st century demands of us begins with respect for traditional ways of managing—not tossing them out, but reflecting on them and building on the parts of them that truly work.
As Dee Hock, founder of Visa, once said: It’s not hard to have new ideas, as they come naturally. What’s harder is letting go of old ideas.
Now let’s look at the role senior leaders will play in this balancing process.
Senior leaders and managers will need to understand that shifting and rotating leaders through various board and leadership positions in an organization—perhaps as often as every three to four years—is a healthy practice for an organization. It allows the kind of fluidity that leadership talent needs in order to emerge and make an impact on some aspect of the organization. As a leader, you’ll need to admit that this involves nurturing the talent your employees already have and then, when the time is right, stepping aside. This creates the kind of flow that encourages personal development at all layers of the organization and fosters a spirit of continuous improvement throughout.
In more traditionally run organizations, a management team determines if the time is right to move on. Unfortunately, that consideration isn’t usually connected to talent, competences, or skills. So a certain dynamic tends to develop during an open organization’s hybrid phase: Managers who have earned and acquired their positions are not willing to give them up so easily. That’s certainly understandable, but it’s not helpful if they’re blocking valuable talent from moving to new positions where they can catalyze the organization’s transformation to an open one. In practice this is the hardest step for longstanding managers to take, because they are often to deeply rooted and ingrained in the current organization. (At least that’s what they think. They’re really guided by a sense of fear: "If I change positions, will I still receive the same respect as I did in my old role?") Unfortunately, you rarely see this practice of rotation in place; in fact, in many organizations, people actively prevent it.
However, when moving towards openness, the balance between leaders and managers requires decisiveness, clarity, and transparency—that is, leadership. This will generate more energy for the movement towards a more open organization, and builds essential trust. When emerging leaders see senior management working with a spirit of genuine curiosity and courage, they’ll likely respond with gratitute, creating a culture of mutual recognition. This positive cycle—curiosity and courage leading to respect and recognition—can help you attract more talent seeking a similar environment, creating a more diverse and inclusive organization while building your organization’s capabilities.
But it’s only possible if people feel they’re working in an environment where they can be themselves, feel included, and trust others.
Making an impact
When managers and senior leaders have embraced a new vision for talent development and committed to becoming a more open organization, they’ll have several important (and highly visible) impacts on their organizations.
For starters, employees will see opportunities to develop themselves and their talents. And if they feel safe to develop—and are allowed to make mistakes in the process, to experiment and learn—they’ll encourage others to follow their lead and do the same. When you’ve created a culture where the best ideas start winning, you’ll cultivate talent that derives a sense of pride from contribution. This way, you’ll contribute to the unity of the collective and increase your chances of success moving forward. If your talent feels seen, stimulated, and appreciated, then your talent will become more engaged.
At the same time, it will be clear to everyone that working together in a team stimulates both creativity and active contributions on the part of individual team members. You communicate that people in your organization are stronger together, and therefore are more open to failing and learning together. This belief creates (regardless of the context) the motivation to achieve the best outcome for the group. This is a critical mechanism in any open organization.
Of course, real life and real transitions are often more unruly than the straightforward explanations I’ve offered here. But the process is worthwhile. In my next article, I’ll discuss employees’ choice to work on transformation under the guidance of leaders. And I’ll also summarize everything we’ve covered in the series so far, adding a few final tips for managing talent in open organizations.
Download the Open Organization Leaders Manual
The nature of work is changing. So the way we lead must change with it.