No Fear: Business Leadership in the Age of Digital Cowboys
By Pekka Viljakainen and Mark Mueller- Eberstein
Published by Marshall Cavendish International
Digital Cowboys as part of an organization
When the Digital Cowboys enter the labour market, they will become a driving force in society. Some are already here, changing the way we think and lead. For me, one of the biggest surprises has been that Digital Cowboys expect their boss to demand more! It is weird when an employee wants more and more challenging tasks. We’re not talking about stuff said in the heat of salary negotiations. The message is that I, as a boss, must be able to challenge these experts to give their best – and then some. But this cuts both ways – if you demand their best, they expect your best in return.
As I said earlier, the PlayStation generation expects those who work in leadership positions to provide enthusiasm, responsibility and cohesion. I’ve asked the same of the cowboys I lead. I have said to employees you can’t be a cowboy of mine if you’re not interested in bringing these same attributes to the team. Since work groups consist of very different experts, enthusiasm, responsibility and cohesion manifest themselves differently with each individual. Regardless of their form, these are the three basic pillars on which everything else is built, so they have to be somehow recognizable and in a position where they can be developed. It’s not just about good manners. I consider going through this basic stuff so important, I tend to do it face to face with my experts. The hard core of team building, i.e. direct communication and leading by example, starts during recruitment and continues subsequently. The same model must be repeated when choosing people for supervisory positions and during training. There are a number of things that are non-negotiable. In contrast to what many people think, members of the PlayStation generation are more than prepared for this.
As you can tell by this book, I am fascinated by Digital Cowboys and what makes them tick. When I started researching and showing interest in Digital Cowboys, it made some people worried. Would this result in ageism at work? Would my ruminations result in a situation where leadership is geared towards the young and agile alone? Was it my aim to drive all the old fogeys born in the forties up to the seventies out of our workplaces? The fear of discrimination hung around in the shadows.
I think the opposite happens with Digital Cowboys in your work force. In my experience, Digital Cowboys tend to lessen all brands of discrimination on the job. If the leadership does its job and everyone is on an equal footing, there is no room for discrimination. A team member is only part of the team as long as he or she creates value for the other members. If a member can’t create value, then he or she is useless to the team – regardless of age, gender or nationality. When old merits and academic degrees count for little, everyone has to do their best. I have not encountered ageism. I’ve seen quite the opposite. I love seeing someone who’s been doing the same job for 20 years come alive when put on a team with some enthusiastic Digital Cowboys. Life experience and perspective combined with the creation of something new makes people come alive.
Digital Cowboys learn from their older colleagues and openly put their own knowledge and perspectives on the digital table. The greatest mistake a leader can make is to try to separate the generations and expert groups from each other. Leaders often set a very compatible group of like-minded people to work on a task. And then assign a supervisor cut from the same cloth. It’s normal. It’s easy and it avoids interpersonal conflict. Digital Cowboys would like to use the same model – they get to ride into the sunset with a group of people their own age, who listen to the same music and are pretty smart. STOP. For the sake of learning and personal development, this scenario must not happen in any way, shape or form anywhere in the organization. The way to do this is to avoid all quotas at all costs. No group should by default have x number of Finns, Americans, Indians or Russians just because it “looks good”. Quotas kill equality. Everyone in the team is entitled to one vote, one task and one value he or she creates for others.
So you have created an enthusiastic, responsible and cohesive team to tackle your latest development challenge. The team is working hard when all of a sudden your lead engineer decides the snow is great in the mountains and doesn’t bother to show up for the weekly team meeting. Her Facebook page shows slopes of fresh powder and she has even posted a video of her “first tracks on the mountain” exploits. You are about ready to blow up when you also notice that she has posted her latest batch of code that resolves a sticky customer issue. Here is one of the biggest conundrums of the PlayStation generation.
Unlike previous generations, Digital Cowboys are much more finicky about their use of time. Fewer people are willing to work 15-hour days and traditional careers or titles are not their top priority. Hobbies, friends and their social life are equally as important. Maybe it’s my background as an entrepreneur, but sometimes this really annoys the hell out of me. There have been numerous occasions when I’ve lost my temper with my Digital Cowboys. To my sense of morality, it’s unbelievable that at a time when the whole team is on fire and deadlines are approaching, a key member might decide to go and be a ski bum for four weeks. And no amount of money or promises will convince them to postpone it by a couple of weeks. It’s as if the operator of Alexander the Great’s biggest catapult decided he needed to go see a masseuse right in the middle of a bloody battle. Their decision probably involved some life-work balance philosophy but I feel it displays an unforgivable degree of indifference to and disrespect for the rest of the team.
Finding the balance between these two opposing views has not been easy. A Swedish Digital Cowboy once told me, “We don’t have working hours, just hours.” Digital tools have done away with the idea that you have to sit in an office from nine to five in order to create value. You carry your know-how with you and your tools are in your laptop, smartphone or iPad. Work is best done when the drive is there – when you’re inspired. If a brilliant idea hits you as you are dropping off to sleep, your laptop is there and you capture the idea – creativity and productivity 24/7.The downside of this model – which makes it more demanding for the boss – is that it requires constant reachability, connectivity and access to resources and data. If you worked on Saturday and Sunday, you don’t get to take off Monday and Tuesday. Someone on your team might need input from you or a customer needs to reach you. The demands of accessibility increase when the team is dispersed over several time zones.
The only way to get past the challenge is to openly agree on specific rules of engagement. These rules are sacrosanct and apply to everyone – from the boss on down. There are no free rides. If you break a rule, you lessen your value to the team. Accountability and open feedback are part of the agreement. A word about “open feedback” – the PlayStation generation has grown up with shows like American Idol as their example of open and helpful criticism. This method of giving and receiving feedback seems cruel and unusual to previous generations but is totally okay with our American Idol followers. Honest and – at times – brutal feedback in the work environment can often be the only way to make things work. And I, as a leader, must be prepared to listen and learn when my team critiques my performance. I also have to be ready to face the “ Idol” panel every day.
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