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4 technology leadership lessons for a post-pandemic world

David Linthicum Chief Cloud Strategy Officer, Deloitte Consulting

Leadership is something I've struggled with since the early days of my career. I've been a CTO several times and a CEO twice. While I take great pride in my leadership successes, I've had a few failures that still make me cringe. I've learned valuable lessons about leadership along the way, mostly by observing failures.

Now, as we prepare to embark upon the new normal of remote work, distance management, and remote collaboration in the coming post-pandemic era, many of those leadership lessons are directly applicable to the new paradigm.

Consider these leadership tips as your organization moves forward in 2021 and beyond.

1. The days of punitive leadership are gone

Most leadership classes I took focused on how to punish and correct rather than on how to motivate and empower to achieve desired behaviors.

Many employees are still taught to operate out of fear, not motivation. This ultimately leads to staff who move to more employee-friendly organizations. As one of my bosses put it, "Scared chickens don't lay eggs."

At the other end of the spectrum, one of my former managers put code quotas on developers and removed part of the bonus if they routinely missed those quotas. The unsurprising results were low-quality software deployments and high turnover.

Leadership failures can't be disguised forever. Upper management eventually implemented damage control. I took over that manager's role and fired him. Next, I set up a reward system that incentivized productivity and quality. There were individual as well as group rewards.

Best of all, the workweek ended at noon on Fridays. The productivity metrics exploded. Turnover went to zero.

If you see punitive leadership today, know that it's outdated and amateurish, and should be called out if you're in a position to do so. Punitive leadership will not work with a remote workforce. It's easier to change leaders.

2. The days of real-time monitoring are gone

I used to laugh at some of my bosses who cared what time I came in to work. On a typical day I would spend the morning looking at tech news on this new thing called the World Wide Web because I had already done a night's worth of work on my laptop (they were big back then). I met all of the bosses' objectives. Why did they care if I showed up at 8:00 or 8:17?

When I became the boss, I already knew that I had no feasible ability to monitor the exact tasks my staff performed minute to minute throughout the day. Nor should I care. The goal was to set reasonable objectives and then motivate and empower the staff to meet those objectives. Even if staffers interrupted those objectives with an Amazon shopping spree from time to time, my leadership focus remained on results.

The reality is that most employees are good people, they want to do a good job, and they want to be positively perceived by their peers and boss. You hire people who are self-motivated and self-learners to ensure unmonitored productivity.

Employees' ability to self-direct their own tasks means that you'll build up a solid remote team for the long term. Those who already made this model succeed had a huge advantage when COVID-19 hit.

Those who insist on detailed remote monitoring of employees will continue to discover that this practice cannot scale. Employees can now find remote opportunities with organizations that have already figured out how to manage by objectives.

The old production-based economy

Approximately 100 years ago, the last post-pandemic era cemented the Industrial Revolution’s transformation of the world from an agrarian-based to a production-based economy. The Industrial Revolution's new factories gave rise to widespread adoption of the overseer model of business management, because most workers were given set tasks to accomplish each day.

Deviation from those tasks produced negative results in production quotas, reduced the quality of the product, or endangered the workers or consumers. A "good worker" showed up on time so that production down the line wouldn't be delayed, did their job as directed to produce a required quota each day, and put in extra hours when needed.

As a result of today's Technological Revolution, the repetitive jobs that benefited most from the overseer management model are now accomplished by automation or robotics. Most workers have shifted from "place widget A on widget B" jobs to positions that often require or benefit from critical thinking on the worker's part.

At the same time, computers, smartphones, tablets, and countless IoT devices have infiltrated all levels of business and society and provide many workers with the capabilities to carry out the prerequisites of their jobs from almost any location in the world.

3. A new reality emerges

A radical movement to a new way of doing things is most accurately called a revolution only in hindsight. The infiltration of technology into our world is a matter of evolution. We were already evolving in this direction before COVID-19 hit. If there were no pandemic, the evolution to a goal-based form of leadership would have continued.

Making so many workers stay at home during this health crisis could be viewed as the silver lining. Now that many employees can work from home and don't have to sit in traffic for two hours a day, most companies with remote workers now report reduced costs, increased productivity, and even better employee attitudes and outlooks about their jobs.

Never forget: Corporations exist to further their own self-interest. The transition to remote workforces seems to be in their self-interest. During the pandemic, if corporations say they are being progressive and safe, that's good for the bottom line. Post-pandemic, data now exists to prove that returning to practices that decrease productivity, and increase costs and turnover, is bad for the bottom line.

Many things post-pandemic will result in a new normal. History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes, as Mark Twain (or someone else) said. The 20th century saw a mass migration from rural to urban areas until urban populations surpassed rural populations in 2009. People follow the jobs.

3. Rural jobs will rise, again

Our current technology allows the population of most First World countries to reverse those location numbers once again. From all indications, we're on the cusp of another sea change in the business workforce. In the coming decades, it's very possible that rural populations will surge into numbers not seen in over 100 years.

In the next iteration of our technology-based society, it seems entirely possible that households with income-generating, remote-work capabilities will once again drive the economy from rural locations. Farmers and workers in agrarian-based societies of previous centuries succeeded or failed based upon how they met more seasonal or "big-picture" goals versus daily quotas. Sound familiar?

Adapt or die

Times are always changing, and leadership needs to change as well. You'll be able to tell who's changing and who's not by the usual hallmarks: lack of revenue and exiting employees. Adapt or die. That old saying still applies.

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