Predictability provides peace of mind. Uncertainty creates anxiety. We live in an uncertain age. The Information Age is behind us. We are now in the Anxious Age. Despite being the most educated, knowledgeable and well-informed people in the history of mankind, our world is unraveling. It is an Age when nothing can be taken for granted and the past is a poor predictor of the future. Uncertainty around interest rates, exchange rates, unemployment rates, and oil prices, combined with uncertainty around foreign affairs leave us all wondering about our future. In my opinion, the top challenges facing business leaders are:
1. Employee Engagement.
Your people are dealing with more stress in their lives than previous generations. This mounting stress is leading to unprecedented levels of depression and use of anti-depressant medication, illicit drugs and alcohol. One of our clients, Info Tech, specializes in helping large corporations spot growing trends in depression, and other issues, before they negatively impact productivity. My colleague, Tim Glover of Jump Point, says that when people are overwhelmed by anxiety, their brains shut down and that depression is one way this shut down is manifested. Without engaged employees, who inspire your clients and everyone else who touches your business, your business will decline. Without engaged employees who enthusiastically solve the unprecedented problems your business faces, your business will decline. Without the energy that engaged employees bring to their work, the spark of creativity will seep out of your business. In the same way that employees strive to balance their work and personal priorities, employers must now take more of an interest in their employees’ personal challenges not just their work lives.
WBM Office Systems has an incredible work culture. While working with their entire sales team, I couldn’t help but be struck by how much everyone on the team genuinely likes each other and how supportive they are of one another. They are all very different characters but they have built a culture which is highly productive and highly supportive. Their support extends beyond the work environment. They have developed personal friendships. Everyone shows up fully engaged because they know everyone else is depending on their contribution. Keeping your employees highly engaged and committed to the core purpose of your business will continue to be a rising challenge.
2. Customer Loyalty.
Getting attention is hard enough. However, once you’ve gotten it, keeping it is now even harder. As your client’s world changes, their priorities change. As their world changes, they face increasing anxiety. Don’t be surprised if doing business with you is not one of their top ten priorities. Don’t be surprised if, as they try to preserve their bottom line, they are attracted to the thought of getting your services from someone else cheaper. And don’t be surprised if, when they interact with your disengaged employees, they are left feeling unfulfilled and uninspired.
Customer loyalty must be earned. That means your loyalty to your customers must come before their loyalty to you. Chris Auty, General Manager of Unitron UK has recently launched an all encompassing program to help his customers market their products, purchase services and supplies at greater discounts and receive leading edge business education. He figures the more successful he can make his customers, the better customers they will be. His strategy is paying off.
Remaining relevant to existing clients and attracting the attention of new ones will be one of the greatest challenges your business will face in the age of anxiety.
3. Effective Leadership.
In the simple world of the Industrial Age, leadership was about command and control. Work was broken down into discreet units and we employed arms and legs to perform the work. As the world has grown in complexity, we realized that we needed people’s heads as well. We started to put the discreet units back together and ask our employees to think about their work and make appropriate decisions. Moreover, as the pace of change accelerates, we need employees who care about their work so we are now asking employees to bring their heart to work as well. We need arms, legs, head and heart – we need entire human beings to show up. We humans are complex creatures aren’t we? Managing complex people in a complex, fast-changing world requires a leadership style that is unlike the command and control style of the Industrial Age. Command and control ignores the internal lives of employees. It was just about getting the job done as efficiently as possible. However, when the job can no longer be clearly defined, you need people who are committed to your cause and who respect you as a leader. When your world can turn upside down overnight, you need to be a leader that can inspire respect while you admit you don’t fully understand what is happening. You need to be humble but decisive. You need to be calm, cool and collected as you navigate your company in a sea of anxiety. Your people need to see your heart. You need to be transparent and humble but not soft or weak.
Your leadership needs to go beyond the four walls of your business and extend out to your clients and suppliers. Personal development must be a key priority for you. As the pace of change and increasing complexity heats up, character flaws will show up. When character flaws show up in leaders, followers can be unforgiving. You might not realize it, but who you are and what you are becoming matters a great deal to the people who look to you for leadership. Dealing with your personal development will be the greatest challenge in the Age of Anxiety.