6 min read Just like the hare, when you're running for something you're passionate about, you're far more likely to win the race. See why your vision is so important as a leader and the signs you might be seeing right now which indicate it needs addressing.
For those CEOs (and there are many) who are grappling with getting their people back to a shared physical environment, post-lockdown is tricky. But it’s also an early warning sign of a bigger issue facing leaders in today’s climate, and an opportunity for some important future-proofing for success.
You may have heard of Aesop’s fable ‘The Hare & the Hound’. A hound spotted a hare and gave chase. After some distance the hound began to gain, but then gave up. As the hound returned home a farmer commented that the little hare had been too much for the hound, who replied, "It's one thing to run for your dinner, but quite another to run for your life."
The moral of the story is that winning often depends on who most wants to. In the current climate, a central part of any leader’s role in getting their business over the finish line, is to ensure everyone in their team really wants to cross it, because at times like these, it’s the teams that are ‘all in’ that win (just look at the NHS for examples of going above and beyond to overcome adversity).
The psychology of choice
Coming out of lockdown was always going to be worse than going in, precisely because more flexibility for many means more choice - and the psychological impact of human choice (and with it control) is incredibly powerful. Over the past few hundred years, humans have become very sophisticated animals when it comes to our choices. We have a plethora of options to select and control everything in our lives, from what we put into our bodies to the aspects of ourselves we choose to share via our social media accounts.
In the developed world with our basic needs generally satisfied, how we derive meaning in our lives has become increasingly complex, and the experience we have in our 40 hour working-week has graduated from a means by which we put bread on our tables to an important source of human fulfilment that was once limited to community or even religion.
We’ve seen each new generation of talent exercise more discernment when choosing their career paths, seeking opportunities that create social and environmental impact, not just profit. Many of this group don’t want to invest their energy and talents into a role that is focused purely on profit generation. If you have access to insight via a decent feedback loop from your hiring managers, this trend will no doubt sound familiar. It’s not uncommon for those interviewing new graduates to feel like they are being interviewed themselves. In contrast to traditional graduate employer rankings, a new index in 2020 scored the top 50 graduate employers by factors that graduates have set.
Unsurprisingly, it included aspects such as water use, gender and ethnicity pay gap, and separation of CEO and Chair. These things are less focused on personal gain, and much more on wider, collective goals, and are reflected in industry data; one study finding that employees are 33% more motivated by their work when a company clearly defines how they create value.*
A human need for connection
Prior to Covid such criteria seemed somewhat limited to the younger generation. But with the combination of space, time and focus that Covid has afforded all of us, this is no longer the case. All generations have had the opportunity to take stock, reflect, and make some mindful choices about their lives, many of whom are now reassessing not just their working environment but also their overall life-choices. It seems what might engage your people in the post-Covid world, will be different to that of the pre-Covid world.
This desire and appetite for connection and purpose might be difficult to spot in your people externally right now, but make no mistake, underneath the immediate concerns visible on the surface, something has stirred in the collective psyche. Their reluctance to come back to the office is not just a sign of concerns such as the length of the commute,
being stuck in a room without opening windows, or how to navigate the lifts; it’s also an early indicator of a deeper concern - a change in the rules of the race. With more time for reflection, many people are beginning to explicitly connect the effort they invest into their work with the outcomes they help create. What difference are those 40 hours a week really making in the world? How does that investment of precious life-hours relate to and connect with the things they really care about? And do they really feel a sense of connection to a bigger collective goal that is shared by their colleagues?
I recently spoke to a new joiner in a large firm who commenced her role in the midst of a blanket remote-working policy; one which as far as she was aware, was set to continue indefinitely. She didn’t experience any personal contact until 3 days in. Although she received background reading and pre-recorded induction training, she didn’t have any conversations with colleagues until well into her first week. These ‘water cooler moments’, natural breaks and interventions during the course of the day typically build relationships and foster a sense of connection and community. Without them, it’s very hard to create the sense of belonging every human craves. A deficit like this is acute for new joiners and also essential for an incumbent team. But to assume that a return to the office will automatically address the cultural issue this individual experienced would miss a subtle distinction between environment and culture. There was nothing to stop her being personally welcomed to her new role virtually despite the lack of a face to face environment, but she wasn’t - which suggests an underlying problem that poses a far greater risk.
Seeing the bigger picture (and the bigger opportunity)
The gravitation to more home working isn’t new, it’s just one of many trends which has been accelerated by Covid; and it isn’t going away. The successful leaders of the future will benefit from addressing the underlying challenge beneath the concerns around a return to the office - the human desire for more meaningful human endeavour beyond that of simply putting dinner on the table.
In doing so they will be better placed to harness the practically limitless energy that is generated in all of us when we’re able to use our gifts for a purpose we consider worthwhile, whether we are doing that in the office or at home. Such purpose needs to be something we would choose once our basic needs are met, and typically involves effecting change in something bigger than ourselves. It needs to be something we would connect on around the water cooler – ergo: it needs to be human.
By ensuring that your purpose is genuinely worthwhile, and that decisions about your environments, behaviours, capabilities, and values are all consistent with it, each one of your team can exercise a part of their identity in their work. Profit, whilst a brilliant by-product of a great purpose, will simply not be enough in the long run to maximise the full potential of your people. And in a business landscape like today’s where competition is rife, accessing that potential could make the difference between the life or death of your business.
So, if you’re hearing, seeing or experiencing an early warning sign and you don’t have a strong enough vision and purpose, now could be the time to address this deficit, and in doing so enhance your chances not just of getting bums on seats, but of actually winning the race.
For more on how I help leaders unlock growth by leading from a more human perspective, click here.