Demonstrating C-level command without a corner office

One of the main effects of the work-from-home/work-from-anywhere situation forced on us due to the pandemic is the devaluation of the physical office building. A lot of large companies have, either permanently or temporarily, shut their headquarters to save on assorted costs – maintenance, power, etc.

While this has larger ramifications in terms of cities, real estate, etc., there’s another, less-noisy side-effect that is worth observing – the way corporate leaders/C-level enforce their leadership.

The physical office building was easier, in that aspect. A tall building indicated power. A corner office demonstrated power. Boardrooms, personal assistants, controlled access, limited availability… all this indicated that the person is supposed to be respected.

When all this is taken away, and yet controlled access and limited availability is practiced, that may work in the opposite direction in a digital-first ‘office’ – the out-of-sight-out-of-mind problem.

A digital-first office set-up necessitates that leaders/C-suite demonstrate and enforce their leadership in dramatically different ways from what they are used to.

The tools available to them are vastly different.

While email continues to be available, the offline, face-to-face, physical methods have been taken away from them. The physical meeting plays on a lot of dimensions – the body language, the voice, the sheer physical command in terms of presence, the obsequious/reverence of others around the leaders, among other factors.

Video conferencing removes a lot of such nuances that leaders have traditionally depended on. The effect may be similar to how kids, who play violent video games, do not register the magnitude of how those actions (performed inside the game) in the real world.

And because we do not see our colleagues in the physical set-up, observing their reactions (we see them in a stamp-size version of themselves), the way we frame our takeaway from leaders’ addresses on video conferencing may be vastly different from how it plays out in the real world.

Now, the other side of the story – how does this play on the leaders themselves?

Many start-up founders, by nature of being younger and digital-natives, have taken quickly to (and even driving adoption themselves) online collaboration tools like Slack, Teams, etc. But, the leaders who had more offline command and were not digital-natives may find it difficult to adjust to the Slack-style of relentlessness in-office communication.

The office collaboration tools are also, by and large, many-to-many platforms, akin to social media platforms. Though there are finer controls to manage the flow of information, the larger approach towards many of these tools is different from the top-down command and control approach that email allowed.

Considering many C-level are still uncomfortable with social media’s many-to-many’ness, learning and mastering tools like Slack poses another challenge for them.

The big shift in approach is from synchronous communication to asynchronous communication. If email helped the C-level take baby steps towards asynchronous communication, tools like Slack and Teams are asynchrony on steroids!

How leaders showcase and demonstrate command and confidence now depends less on their physical postures and imposing presence and more on the words they choose to use, the sentences they frame, and the way they behave overall in the digital presence of employees.

This is not like how leadership is demonstrated in other spheres, for instance, political leadership. When a political leader speaks via TV/internet, she/he exudes power and confidence, no doubt but such leaders do not have a direct role to play in the employees’ lives. The employee doesn’t need to perform the actions suggested/recommended by such leaders. Corporate leadership is completely different because there is a direct connection between the leaders and employees on an almost-daily basis and both need to perform their work together.

This is a shift unlike many other shifts that may have occurred earlier within the corporate system. The leaders were just warming up to the ‘digital transformation’ from the business management perspective when the pandemic struck. Now, the digital transformation may be demanded from the very way they exist in the form of corporate leaders.

Embracing this as a challenge, showcasing vulnerability (being human) as they learn, and finding ways to make it work collaboratively would be a great start for C-level executives.

Cover picture courtesy: Inc.

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