Leadership & the future of work

Whether it's a global pandemic, inclement weather conditions, or other unforeseen challenges, being a good leader is key to making it through difficult times. In this episode, Jay Richards, a member of the founding team and senior consultant at Denison Consulting, returns to the show to discuss a little bit about leadership in a post-pandemic world and going forward.


Amanda Del Buono: Welcome back to Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce. As always, I'm Amanda Del Buono.

Whether it's a global pandemic, inclement weather conditions or other unforeseen challenges, being a good leader is key to making it through difficult times. Today, I've invited Jay Richards, a member of the founding team and senior consultant at Denison Consulting, back to discuss a little bit about leadership in a post-pandemic world and going forward.

Thanks for being here today, Jay.

Jay Richards: Hey, thanks for having me, Amanda. It's great to be back.

Amanda: Yeah. So, when we spoke last year about leading during the pandemic, I'm wondering how you think the pandemic changed how leaders are looking at their responsibility as we're seeing some restrictions and things like that subside?

Jay: Sure. Yeah. You know, I think, to me two key things emerged. As you know, Denison does culture surveys, leadership surveys, diversity and inclusion surveys, engagement surveys, all of those things, right? So we sit on a ton of data. And that didn't really stop. It kind of stopped between what was March, April, May, and June, when everybody pushed their work. But, you know, we didn't stop, we actually created a resilience survey, okay? And the resilience survey was our way of helping organizations. We actually did it pro bono for people, right? And it was a quick survey that we would give to organizations, our clients, at no cost, and they could get information and back from their people, okay? So, the two themes we saw were communication and adaptability, alright? And communication was that these leaders were coming out in force, having to get in front of their people and communicate like they've never communicated before because they had to, okay?

And then the adaptability piece, all right? The adaptability was that really in almost every organization, adaptability or change is just difficult. People hate change. They come up with cute little terms, such as management fed and flavor of the month, to fight back against it and belittle anyone who thinks about change in the way we do business, right? They just dislike it. But a great culture can't do that. A leader in a great culture has to embrace change. And what I saw that was really cool that came out of that was something that I learned from John Kotter out of Harvard. He has this eight-step change model, right? In that model, the first step in change was creating a sense of urgency. And the sense of urgency was the pandemic. You know, we had a reason to change. And we do a sense of urgency, as Kotter would say, is because without a sense of urgency, there's no need to change.

So what we've learned through all this crap with management feds that have failed and flavors of the month is that when we do have that sense of urgency, that's where we start with creating change. And then it's all about process, creating a vision, and things like that. But during the pandemic, it was a lot about communication and changing. And the organizations, I think, employees really respected that in terms of how their leaders got out there and did things like that. So, you know, if I'm looking for something that I want to carry forward, how we communicate, and how we change, and learning from what we did to be able to carry that forward is essential.

Amanda: Well, kind of in line with that, then, what are you seeing that is actually sticking? Maybe not just what you're hoping will stick, but what have you noticed people really implementing and planning as they're moving forward?

Jay: Well, I think telework will be more widely accepted. Not that we'll always be using it, but I think it will be more widely accepted. I mean, I don't know how many times I would run into people, you know, even in my own organization, that couldn't understand why people could actually not be in the office and still get work done. And that's not the case, you know. We can get work done. I think it will be much more accepted. I think there were a lot of doubters out there prior. I think there still are plenty of doubters out there, but I think we can all agree that, you know, telework basically saved our butts during this pandemic, okay?

What I see leaders focusing on now as we go moving forward is the future of work. So a lot of our clients trying to think about what will it look like, what will our facilities look like, and what skills and tools will our people need to be successful, okay? Now, with that said, my gut feeling is we also need to be cautious as we create our vision for the future. I personally miss the social interaction myself, and we were talking earlier before we got this started. I miss the spontaneous connectivity. I also hear this from others as well.

I think the future of work will be a hybrid model, where we eventually move back to an office type of environment, but where the traditional personal work stations have been replaced with, you know, something like a plug-and-play option, such as hoteling. Telework will be more commonplace for all organizations, I think, not just the progressive ones. And what I mean by that, I think the ones that were non-believers will become believers, and there will be a place for telework. But I would see personally that it would move back because I'm hearing it from younger people in our organization, I'm hearing it from people that we work with, that they just miss that social interaction. You know, the mentoring that breaks out on spur of the moment, birthday celebrations, just that sense of family. And I think those are the types of things that will probably move the pendulum from where we were full office to full telework, and then back again toward maybe a hybrid model, where we're still there, but our facilities might look different.

Amanda: So since the pandemic began the use of digital tools increased quite a bit, as you just mentioned, as far as, you know, remote working and many other means. How can leaders best navigate this digital reality going forward? And, how can they keep their employees, like, interested in these digital changes as they continue to implement them or keep them implemented post-pandemic?

Jay: Good question. And it's simple, you ask them. And, you know, Denison's kind of in the business of asking people, right? So our job, we go out and we survey people and things like that. So that's what we've seen. As I mentioned, we did it with a resilience survey, just a quick-hit survey that we go out and collect information on how we're communicating, how we're doing this, how we're doing that. And also gathering quantitative data as well as qualitative data. So we're, you know, getting their responses in text and things like that. And so, I think that's how you do it. You have to stay connected with people. And I'm working with an organization right now on a whole future of work program that they're doing, and this is a large organization with tens of thousands of employees. So we're doing, like, over 100 focus groups with employees. We're doing all senior leader one-on-one interviews. And we're just asking, what is it like? What do you need? What do the facilities need to look like? What type of skills do we need for the future? How do you feel in your day-to-day work? What's your workload like? All these things.

Because one big thing that you keep hearing is this not being able to separate work from home, right? It's like I'm sitting here in my own home office, and when I'm done, I'm sitting out, you know, with my family, either in the kitchen or family living room, whatever. But work doesn't necessarily end. You know, I'm still getting email, everybody's got my mobile phone. I mean, it's just crazy, you know, to me. We just have to find out what are they feeling? We've got to stay connected, both leaders and employees. And so basically, just keep your fingers on the pulse of the organization. And you do this by communicating, right? Communicating both ways. You're talking to people, listening, and things of that nature.

Amanda: Makes sense. Sometimes the simplest answer is just to ask people what they need.

Jay: Oh, for sure. For sure. And honestly, I think that's the best way. Sometimes we think about that as too complicated. You know, how will we address this? What will people think? And you can't make assumptions. You know, to me, it's always, like, let's not make assumptions, let's go ask them. And I guarantee you, they will tell you. I mean, like I said, we do focus groups all the time, and they'll tell you the truth, and sometimes it's the brutal truth. But we need to hear it, right? To be effective and to create an effective organization, we need to keep our fingers on the pulse of the organization.

Amanda: Well, we've teased that a little bit, but looking ahead, I think it's safe to say that everyone's hoping we will be back to normal soon. What advice do you have for those leading in the post-pandemic future?

Jay: I think try to look at things as a lesson learned type of thing, okay? I think one of the cool things that I saw during the pandemic with leaders was empathy, okay? Compassion. I heard one person, I was on a podcast earlier, talk about compassionate leader. And I connected with him on LinkedIn, and I'm like, "Man, you are spot on." Because as you read these comments that were coming out of our resilience survey, it was interesting because employees had a new view of their leaders because the leaders were out in front communicating and really thinking of them and listening to them. But it went both ways. Leaders saw employees really, you know risking their lives, right, because they were coming in. There was no break for manufacturing.

You know, my son just graduated from MSU, Michigan State University, got a job at a steel company right here in Michigan. There was no vaccine. There was no break. You know, they were essential. They had to go in and do the things that kept the world moving forward, right? So, day after day, he was going in. And I think leaders saw that employees were way more dedicated than they ever have been. And I think that's a cool thing, that on both sides, people saw each other and appreciated each other.

And then not only that, people like you and I, right? Man, I mean, I was lucky. I could sit behind a computer and hide from the world for the most part. But even us, as we went onto these Zoom accounts and started seeing, you know, kids running around in the background, we started having a better appreciation and more empathy for our co-workers because we got to see how stressful their life was as a kid went running by, right? I think, to me, man, empathy is just a big thing.

And, you know, we've done a lot of research, like I said. Years ago, I did the five qualities of a high-performing organization because often we're focused on organizations when we're going in that have issues but want to become a better culture, right? But I took a lot of the organizations that we had that already had great cultures and we focused on what employees said were their greatest strengths, okay? So these were top-quartile companies. And some of the greatest strengths were, one was that they truly valued people or empathy. They liked their people, they showed it, and they truly, truly valued their employees. This thing about our employees are our most valuable asset wasn't something they put up on the wall that collected dust. They really believed it. And through that, they created an organization where people looked at it as family, okay? I could actually go into any organization and ask a question, which is what would you preserve about this culture? And if I saw people say the word family, at least 10% of the time actually use the word, not just team orientation, they'll talk about teamwork, but if they use the word family, maybe 5% of the time, maybe, okay, I can almost predict that they would be a full culture profile.

So, to me, that was one of the cooler things. And I know all of this probably sounds a little goofy, maybe to some people. But there's a huge body of research out there about organizations with top cultures that will engage people, they outperform these lower-performing cultures with little engagement day after day. I mean, look at the survey best places to work. If you took all those companies and track that against the Russell 3000 or the S&P, they outperform. So it's not rocket science, right? It just makes good sense, and it's what we need to do. So finally, as I mentioned above, remember the good things that happened. Remember how you communicated, how did you respond to the pandemic in terms of creating change and getting people to move forward and embrace the change. And then take all that you've learned and apply it moving forward.

Amanda: Makes a lot of sense. Well, we recently talked on the podcast about creating growth opportunities for employees. I'm curious what your advice is on how leaders can continue to improve their skills. And, you know, maybe what skills do you think are most important for leaders to be focusing on honing?

Jay: Well, basically, now what I see, it's kind of changed. I mean, I would always say things like, obviously, communication, right? Leadership. Leadership through respect. I mean, there's a whole host of things that I think need to be present for great leaders. But from a post-pandemic and an environment where we are working remotely, the biggest challenge for leaders is working to keep people connected, okay? Now more than ever, you have to be better at staying connected with your employees while balancing their workload. What I mean by that is we need to understand boundaries. Employees are finding it harder to separate work life from home life. This means as a leader, you can't just assume everything is okay. You have to keep your fingers on the pulse of your people, which I mentioned earlier, right?

So if you want to know what they're thinking, once again, you have to ask them, but you ask them by making sure that you're always at least having a check-in with people. I've got weekly check-ins that I do. I want to be careful because I also don't want to just keep throwing meetings at people, right? That's not good either. I'm seeing a lot of that where people are like, "God, another meeting." So what we're always trying to do is whether at Denison or some of the organizations I'm working with, I see them, if we can wrap that up early, let's say, "Hey, I'm giving you 15 minutes back," or, "Hey, I'm giving you 30 minutes back." But be cognizant of the time, but also be cognizant of creating that connection with your people, okay?

And also, at the same time, you know, as people feeling stressed about that workload, you might think, "Oh, you know, no, they're working from home. They must have plenty of time on their hand." No, that's not always the case, right? Because heck, I'm taking calls, you know, during the evening, I'm getting texts and emails during even the late hours, right? But we want to be aware of that. And the reason we want to be aware of that is always keep in mind turnover. Now, turnover has been pretty much on holiday during most of the pandemic, but it's starting to creep back in. But now with this remote thing, people have way more options than they used to, okay?

It used to be, we would hire people right around the Ann Arbor area. We realized in the pandemic, we don't have to do that anymore. We've got some of our employees that are moving all over, up to the West Coast, Central U.S., we just hired someone from Iowa. The world's our oyster now. We can hire from anywhere we want, and employees realize that. So, as more options become available and more people and we start moving back toward where we're getting back to whatever normal is going to look like, I think what you'll see is people will start taking off. So you want to stay connected, make sure you know how your employees are feeling, and you should be okay.

So to wrap up, these are the skills I would focus on during this post-pandemic thing. Communication. You now know what good communication looks like. So apply it moving forward. Leading change. You had the biggest change process probably ever seen in the business world, right? You saw what happens. Look up John Kotter and the eight-step model, right? It starts with sense of urgency. We had that, but then we lay out vision. We communicate vision. We build strategy. We ingrain it in our culture, etc. We know what that looks like. Use that moving forward. And then finally, empathy. We know our people are dedicated. We know that people will rise to the challenge in any situation. So communication, leading change, and empathy. Those are the skills that I would use moving forward.

Amanda: Fantastic. Well, thank you again for coming back to share some of your insights and, you know, really look at the future of leadership and future of work.

Jay: Exactly. No, it's good. And I love your podcast. And it's great that you're out there, you know, bringing people together, sharing ideas, and sharing thoughts. And I hope anything that I mentioned today will be useful to people. But if not, you know, I'm sorry. But, you know, to me, the communication piece is always going to be the most important. You know, so far, in 20-plus years of working around culture and leadership, I'm yet to see any organization go out of business for over-communicating. So, to me, it's, you know, communicate, communicate, communicate, and value people, period.

Amanda: Yeah. And I think those are really good points, and it's always important to be reminded of that as, you know, we all get our heads down in our work and sometimes lose track of maybe what's important to keep up, doing things like that. All right. Well, thanks again to our listeners for tuning in today. Be sure to subscribe to "Manufacturing Tomorrow's Workforce" on your favorite podcasting app. And until next time, stay safe.

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