This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
The birth of the digital age and its explosive growth to adolescence has created a generational divide in the work force that business leaders simply cannot ignore.
The incoming generation of digital natives – those who have grown up with Internet-connected mobile devices in their hands – generally have much different ideas about communication than their more senior colleagues, who joined the work force long before social media was even a word.
Organizations must find ways not only to accommodate both these groups, but also to bridge the digital gap and enable both groups to play off each other's strengths.
The emergence of new media and the workplace challenges it creates form a key part of the transformation in leadership thinking we highlighted in our recently published book, Leadership 2030: The Six Megatrends You Need to Understand to Lead Your Company in the Future.
The consequences of digitization are forcing leaders out of their comfort zones, possibly more than any of the trends we previously examined.
Younger workers may have a technological edge over their more senior colleagues, which in some ways better equips them to lead in the virtual age. According to futurists like Don Tapscott, this generation has spent more than 30,000 hours immersed in digital technology by the time they are in their early 20s. They process information more quickly, multi-task more effectively, search and filter large amounts of data and make quick decisions based on the information.
But there can also be drawbacks. For all of their crucial digital knowhow, many of these young workers tend to read fewer books and have come to rely less on what they know but rather on how to find out what they need to know. And their social skills – developed heavily within a digital, online environment – may lack some of the crucial interpersonal and emotional intelligence capabilities needed to lead in a corporate environment.
Despite these deficits, the tech talents of younger employees are critical assets that can contribute significantly to the success of their organizations. It's crucial for leaders to leverage this potential by understanding and embracing these workers' ingrained creativity, different ways of learning, innovation, curiosity and open-mindedness. To do so, organizations will need to explore new approaches to developing future leaders by making it easier and more efficient to access information and use social media to connect like minded people and experts.
Perhaps most importantly, organizations will need to recognize and develop digital leadership skills – how to craft and manage messages in a 24/7 media world and respond to communication that travels at the speed of light. Putting the right frameworks and policies in place, and providing guidance on issues such as corporate confidentiality and the boundaries between private and professional life, will be essential.
Incorporating the skills of digital natives opens the door to a two-way knowledge transfer that will help close the generation gap and allow senior team members to help their younger colleagues cope with corporate life and acquire the necessary social skills.
All of this will have to happen as leaders face the growing challenge of managing remotely. Digitization has brought great freedom to the workplace, allowing more workers to do their work whenever and wherever they choose. The downside is a corresponding drop in face-to-face communication and with it the added obstacle of trying to foster a sense of unity and engagement between younger and older workers who may seldom actually work side by side.
In an age when much of our lives play out online and there is little distinction between public and personal, social media is a key environment where corporate leaders will have to get comfortable in order to engage their remote teams.
Social media has become so popular because it allows every person and organization to have a voice. This, of course, can be a double-edged sword. It allows an organization to engage with employees and market to their customers in ways that could never have been anticipated just a few years ago. These positives make social media a valuable business tool. But the somewhat chaotic and uncontrollable nature of this new medium has many leaders reluctant to fully embrace it, often because they don't fully understand its power to influence customers, engage employees and drive innovation.
Organizations also need to be seen as purpose driven in today's world. The best way to do this is to tell powerful stories.
One leader we worked with had the idea of leveraging social media as part of the design of a high-impact, emotionally engaging program to teach the organization's core values. She created an innovative crowd-sourcing idea by using the power of social media. Putting out a challenge to key regions across the globe, she asked people to go out and, using any digital device, record clients, employees and people on the street talking about the impact the organization's products had on them personally, illustrating the company's values through the eyes of others. The most emotional and engaging stories were compiled as part of a montage that kicked off the session.
This example is exactly the kind of initiative corporate leaders need to better navigate our digital world and build internal bridges in the workplace at the same time.
Rick Lash is the national director of the leadership and talent practice for Hay Group (@HayGroup) in Canada and co-leader of the annual Hay Group Best Companies for Leadership study. Leadership 2030: The Six Megatrends You Need to Understand to Lead Your Company in the Future is written by Hay Group consultants Georg Vielmetter and Yvonne Sell, and published by Amacom Books.