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.
Several years ago, I was coaching Tracy (not her real name) who was an up-and-coming performer working for a major pharmaceutical organization in New York. She was smart, ambitious and, more than anything else, wanted a leadership role. Her bosses noticed and, several months later, she got the promotion she was hoping for. Fast-track nine months. I dropped by her office to see how she was doing. It looked like a bomb had gone off. There were piles of paper everywhere and she looked like she hadn't slept in days. I sheepishly asked how she was doing. She looked me in the eye and said, "I'm exhausted. I haven't had a weekend off in months and I just can't seem to get my head above water. To be honest, I can't even remember why I wanted this job. I'd give anything to go back."
Although Tracy's story is extreme, it is by no means uncommon. Ask most teachers to choose between being in the classroom with their students or taking a vice-principal role where, most days, they will be in the office by 7:30 a.m. and leave by 8 p.m., work weekends, deal with hostile parents and crumbling schools for a few extra thousand dollars a year, and it's no surprise they'll choose to be with the kids. Many organizations are struggling to make leadership roles attractive to a generation that looks at their bleary-eyed bosses and think to themselves, "I don't want to sign up for that."
So what has changed in the world of work that often makes it look like one has to give up a life in order to be a leader? For most millennials (and I dare to say for many older workers as well), expectations of what people want out of their work and their lives continues to shift, with more people unwilling to make the sacrifices leadership roles often demand.
At Tangerine Bank, an organization that has been particularly effective at attracting and growing young leaders, they recognize that the old model of leadership needs to change. According to Cheryl Stargratt, Tangerine's chief people officer, "Millennials place a much higher value on discretionary time. They want happiness at home and they want happiness at work. The traditional model of leadership – hierarchical and status driven – does not fit into their view of life, which to them is more like Facebook – connected, flat and egalitarian. Their life is a tapestry where work is not the centre of their life." The very notion of what it means to be a leader, in the traditional sense, simply doesn't fit with their world view. Many organizations are struggling with an outdated model that has young people coming in, looking around and simply not recognizing themselves.
I still work with many traditional organizations. You often come into an executive meeting and at the head of the table is the senior vice-president, with the vice-presidents and directors in descending order around the table. As a new employee, you're expected to figure out how the system works. Big organizations look for people who will fit in. What these same organizations need to recognize, however, is that they shouldn't be looking in the mirror for hiring the next generation of leaders, they should be looking at their children.
The structured, hierarchical organization with the boss at the top getting work done through others is quickly giving way to a different kind of organization where more people work in autonomous teams. Leadership and decision-making is often shared and fluid, and membership constantly changes with team members leaving and joining depending on the stage of the project or changing business needs. Today's organizations are rapidly evolving into a different kind of beast – more like a networked brain, with multiple connection points where information and action is distributed across many parts of the system. One's identity is with the team, not the boss. Leaders are a node in a network, not a position in a hierarchy. And that is fundamentally changing what it means to be a leader.
"You need to give people key responsibilities," says Michael Fellin, the new dynamic head master at Toronto's Crescent School. "Even though each leader is responsible for his or her own areas, my job is to help them try on new hats. I think of executive leadership all the time – it resides across the system, not in my job."
So when a key senior leadership position became vacant, instead of looking for a replacement, Mr. Fellin chose to deputize his executive team to share the responsibility. He recognized that the old role was too complex to manage in one job and that having a network of capabilities was the best path forward while empowering and growing his team.
So what can we learn from organizations who are facing this challenge and succeeding? There are a few ideas:
Redefine leadership: Leadership is not a one-size-fits-all. Replace the old model of leadership with one that more reflects today's business reality of nimbleness, customer responsiveness and continuous change. Leadership resides not in the role but is distributed and constantly changing and is not measured by how many people report to you. Just like the traditional role of what it means to be a family with dad at the top has changed, successful leaders have different attributes – authentic, interested in coaching others and strong facilitators. If people can see themselves in the role, they will value it more and aspire to want to do that kind of work.
Provide early exposure: In a Hay Group study of leaders at IBM, those most successful served as executive assistants to senior leaders early in their careers. At Tangerine, student interns are given significant responsibility right from the start. They are allowed to attend all kinds of meetings and it's not uncommon for students to be sitting next to CEO Peter Aceto. Along the way, they are continually mentored and coached. Tangerine tries to make the work of leadership more attractive by showing young people what it looks like.
Make purpose the heart of leadership: People fundamentally want to know that their work makes a difference beyond just the bottom line. Purpose driven organizations – like Tangerine, Tom's Shoes, Kind and a growing host of others – are winning in the market because they attract people who see their values reflected in the work of these organizations and they want to be a part of it. These organizations talk about their purpose in everything they do and that leadership at its core is about helping others see how their work contributes to greater good.
So why be a leader? I asked that question to my friend who took the VP job at her school. Here's what she said: "As a VP, I'm the last chance for the at-risk kid to get an education. It's never dull, every second there is something new. You get to work with other strong leaders and everyone in between. I have a far bigger impact than I ever could just being a teacher."
So, perhaps in the end, that is the real answer. The gift of leadership is the opportunity to make a difference, however you measure it – keeping a kid in school, creating healthy communities or simply helping others to feel more capable to do their best.
Rick Lash is a senior client partner with the Korn Ferry Hay Group leadership and talent practice in Toronto. He is also a registered psychologist and a certified coach, working with senior executives globally.