Leading the Modern Workforce

I don’t know that I speak for everybody (because to my knowledge…I never have), but the way I see it, one global pandemic a lifetime is plenty! And it is comforting somehow to be getting back to disruptive change that simply alters our lives in a manner that irritates, as opposed to devastates.

Still, it is difficult to deny that COVID had positive impacts of significance as well. If nothing else, it has driven us to look with a fresh set of eyes at just about everything. As that applies to the twisting and turning evolution of all that is organizational life, the pandemic forced companies to approach people management with discernibly increased amounts of both humanity and flexibility. In an effort to cram multiple “buzz phrases” into the same sentence, COVID ushered in the Great Resignation, which gave way to Quiet Quitting, and has left us to contemplate how to effectively lead the Modern Workforce.

The Modern Workforce is a comparatively complicated beast (and I use that phrase in the upmost professional and affectionate terms!). In one way, I suppose it just sort of “is…what it is.” And while that descriptor is consistently difficult to argue with at face value, you miss so very much if you stop there. All of us need to at least acknowledge that effectively influencing others in a post pandemic world is simply not the same as it was a few short years ago. We have five generations in this workforce, emanating from every conceivable source of diversity, with more “say” than ever on where, and when, they will be working.

In an effort to garner additional insight into the Modern Workforce, I imposed upon a young lady named Emily. I sat down with her for an hour in a coffee shop and asked a series of very open-ended questions about life and work. I learned a lot (which is a massive understatement!). Here is a compartmentalized overview:

Emily and Life

  • Graduated from college with a degree in Sculpture
  • Is a divorced mother of two. And I appreciate the fact that some of you might think something like, “What’s that got to do with anything?” Hang with me here, because (in general) I think details about that tidbit of personal information reveal so very much about her character and her potential. In brief:
    • Emily answered a knock at the door of her home one day. It was a man who was kind enough to inform her that he was there to repossess both of the family’s cars (instead of just driving off with them). Her first thought was, “This has to be some sort of colossal mistake”
    • Same day and not long thereafter, she received notification from her bank that her home was in foreclosure, and she and her family had an unimaginably short period of time to vacate
    • Net-net, Emily discovered in a few short hours that the man she had married was not the man she thought she knew, and the rug that was her life had just been aggressively ripped out from under her feet
  • The only thing that remotely resembles good news here (as far as I can tell) is that Emily came from a very strong family. As a result, she and her kids received responsive assistance from those that loved them almost immediately (which really makes you wonder what those in similar situations do in the absence of that dedicated network)

Emily and Work

  • Somewhere between college and the knock on her door, Emily became a credentialed sommelier. She had a job for a number of years managing a staff of 10-12 in a boutique restaurant. It sounded like she had precisely zero formal training to prepare her for her role as a people manager, but it also sounded like, when she was tossed into that pool, she figured out a way to swim
  • As you might imagine, when it came time to start thinking about reentering the workforce after the knock at the door, Emily could not afford to focus on landing her dream job. She needed something in close proximity to where she, her kids and her extended family were living. She also needed a job that came with a strong benefit package. This would greatly reduce the anxiety associated with raising two small children in a world where anything can happen (and quite frequently does)
  • She wound up taking an entry level position as a sourcing analyst for a gigantic manufacturing company. If (by chance) you are wondering what a sourcing analyst does, start with sculpting…and being a sommelier…and move in the opposite direction…as far as you can possibly go! If I got this right, her responsibilities in this position required her to create massive spreadsheets populated with the thousands of suppliers her company used, then categorize and analyze the data on those spreadsheets to help inform future contractual decisions
  • Three months into all that, a global pandemic hit (of course). While trying to figure out how to work from her parents’ home, with a two-year-old and a four-year-old running all over the place, she volunteered to tackle a special project. This project identified and locked in critical suppliers during the first phase of COVID. In so doing, she not only swam in the waves of disruptive change but also figured out a way to surf. Two things happened:
    • She received formal recognition of significance from her employer for her contributions, (and currently finds herself pursuing credentialed certification as a project manager)
    • She recognized, appreciated and was humbled by the support she had received from her parents and extended family during this demanding chapter of her life

Now, using Emily’s input as a backdrop, dream with me for a minute. What if every manager, everywhere, spent an hour with each member of their team (coffee optional) listening to what that employee felt like sharing about life and work? Clearly, some would share more than others, and I’m not suggesting for a moment those 60 minutes would immediately usher in answers to everybody’s problems. But I also can’t help believing it wouldn’t hurt anything either! More than that actually.  Investing time in personalized discovery might just be the most important thing a leader can do these days if they want to connect with, effectively influence and unleash the power and the potential of the Modern Workforce.

For instance, what did we learn about Emily? At a minimum we know:

  • She can stare severe adversity in the face and effectively respond
  • She seeks stability in combination with the continued opportunity to learn and develop
  • She can jump into the middle of new things, with limited (if any) transferable experience or skill, and demonstrate proficiency, in a limited period of time

Hobert Joly (Best Buy) was one of the first CEO-authors to define the role of management in a contemporary organization as “helping people connect their personal dreams to the noble purpose of the organization.” Think about that (and Emily) as you try to figure out how to lead the Modern Workforce. Leadership is unquestionably different from what it used to be. Then again, it really just sort of is…what it is!