Will the Inspired Product Leaders Please Stand Up?

career innovation leadership product management Sep 01, 2021

We are amid a leadership reckoning. Our lives and greater society are changing in front of our eyes. There will be fundamental changes in how we work, lead, and manage once we are through this current crisis. Command-and-control leadership is no longer an option. Leaders must tap into the insights of employees to determine how to succeed after this period of uncertainty and chaos. 

What is needed is a human-centered leadership style – one that puts employees first and embraces the reality that inspired employees drive organizational success. These leaders recognize the qualities that make us human – connection, positivity, belonging, and a sense of meaning – are must-haves to grow.

The leaders who are ego-centered and power-hungry reside over organizations that will crumble in the aftermath of this crisis.

What is a human-centered leader?

Flattens the hierarchy

A human-centered leader does not believe in the effectiveness of large-scale command-and-control hierarchy. The traditional organizational chart creates what Gary Hamel calls “creative apartheid.” Hierarchy stifles innovation and visionary ideas from coming to the surface. In large hierarchies, many at the top believe they are the only ones who have good ideas.

Flat organizations push decisions down the hierarchy to individual teams. Yes, leaders set the vision and the strategy. But the decision-making is left to the teams, those who are closest to the customers and market. When this happens, employees feel empowered to come up with new ideas that transform the organization.

A human-centered leader builds the vision and strategy and empowers employees with decision-making.

Encourages curiosity 

Human-centered leaders are hungry for people’s ideas and opinions. They find tools and processes to help individuals bring their questions, views, and opinions to the forefront. They love being out in the office with employees, engaging in dialogue, and brainstorming new ideas. 

According to LeadershipIQ, “62% of employees who say their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement will strongly recommend it as a great organization to work for.”

These leaders deploy high-performance teams who are willing to break down silos and even come up with out of the box ideas and concepts. Ed Catmull, the charismatic co-founder of Pixar and now president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, said it best: “If you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works!”

It is during this time of uncertainty when innovation is needed. The only way this will happen is to encourage curiosity up and down the organization.

Creates a sense of belonging

Human-centered leaders create a sense of belonging within their organization. They recognize and celebrate the diversity of backgrounds and thought and seek to leverage each person’s uniqueness. Employees want to be part of an organization that focuses on forming bonds of respect and positivity, where each person can do their best work. When employees have a sense of belonging, they feel accepted for who they are and for the ideas they bring to the table.

Companies such as LinkedIn have found that boosting employees’ sense of belonging leads to better bottom-line results. Not only does it help recruit and retain talent, but a sense of belonging also creates an experience of work that leaves employees feeling valued, wanted, and welcomed. LinkedIn builds this belonging through its Bravo! Employee recognition program. For example, 54% of employees showed a year-over-year increase in performance ratings when they received 3+ awards.

Treats colleagues like family

Employees are worried about their health, the health of their families, their jobs, and are dealing with a large number of stressors. Leaders cannot expect employees to come to work (even if virtual) with the same zest they had a month ago. There is too much going on.

Huma-focused leaders have empathy for what employees are going through. They are flexible in adjusting work projects and schedules to support employees. In this time of unprecedented stress, human-centered leaders have a mindset that their colleagues are family. They can feel one another’s pain, celebrate milestones, and create a culture that resembles a family dinner table.

Christopher Cordaro, chief investment officer at Regent Atlantic, says  “companies that demonstrate through their policies and procedures that they care about their employees have more productive, more resourceful and more innovative teams – participation that is crucial in a crisis.” 

Gets out of their office

Human-centered leaders check-in with their employees and colleagues weekly or every other week. During this crisis, this check-in must be across all levels, including CEOs checking in with their company once a week. 

The check-in should not be a one-sided conversation. It must include:

  • Transparency of the state of the business given the crisis
  • Time for questions from employees
  • Celebrating successes (even small wins)

Leaders should show a balance of facts, a sense of calm, and feelings of positivity and hope. Now is not the time for leaders to sit in the boardroom. Forget the hierarchy. It is time for leaders to inspire their teams to greatness by being visible, vulnerable, positive, and empathetic.

Leads from the heart – and the head 

In crisis, the hardest things can be the softest things. Punit Renjan from Deloitte writes: “Resilient leaders are genuinely, sincerely empathetic, walking compassionately in the shoes of employees, customers, and their broader ecosystems.” At the same time, leaders need to ensure they manage the business from a financial perspective. Leaders need to use their head and heart in these unprecedented times.

Embraces new ways of working

Human-centered leaders know they cannot ignore the imperative to build a culture where everyone can leverage time, technology, different workspaces, and new processes to get things done and integrate work and life. Human-centered leaders look to results, not how many hours an employee is in the office or online. In a time when kids are home, parents have become teachers, and schedules are in flux; leaders need to measure people based on outcomes, not by time at work.

Humanity is at the core of work. The days where profits were more important than people are gone. Leaders must realize that at the center of work are people. And at the center of people is their humanity. Leaders who understand this will lead organizations through this crisis and start to see unprecedented success and growth.

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