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Remaking the Association Workplace
New Ways to Work

A Skill-Set Revamp for Leaders

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The pandemic brought new emphasis to empathy and communication as essential skills for leaders. But before you take that listening tour, a self-assessment is in order.

When asked what skill leaders most need to cultivate these days, workplace consultant Tamala Blalock, CAE, doesn’t hesitate: “self-introspection,” she says.

The past two years have so thoroughly disrupted how people work, where they work, and how they’re treated in the workplace that it’s more crucial than ever that leaders recognize their blind spots, says Blalock, principal at Blalock Consulting and VP, cooperative relations, at the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International. You can’t address disruption if you’ve trained yourself not to see it.

“The conventional wisdom is that we’re trying to be as objective as possible and inclusive as possible,” she said. “But the reality is that we’re incredibly subjective people all the time. We need to be aware of our preferences and biases.”

Pamela J. Green, president and CEO of Pamela J. Green Solutions, says that kind of introspection hasn’t really taken hold, however. Case in point: the urge to return to “normal.”  Leaders are “still trying to solve current problems or challenges with outdated ways of seeing the work and doing the work,” she said. “They are living off past successes, thinking it will just blow over.”

But the workforce churn of the past two-plus years is evidence that conventional leadership tactics may not be working. In 2021 and the first half of 2022, people quit their jobs in record numbers, and a March 2022 survey from Willis Towers Watson found that more than 40 percent of the U.S. workforce was looking for a new job. While pay is a key consideration for many job seekers, the survey also found that a substantial proportion of workers were thinking about factors beyond compensation when considering their employment options, including job security, flexible work arrangements, and an organizational culture in which workers feel appreciated.

Look Inward, Then Outward

In light of that, Blalock says, CEOs and other senior leaders need to make an effort to be better tuned in to employee concerns. She suggests that leaders conduct a self-assessment, such as DISC, to better grasp their leadership approaches and blind spots. That’s the first step to developing a management approach that creates a positive environment for staff. “In leadership, it’s our responsibility to empower our team rather than make them conform to what we’re most comfortable with,” she said.

“Leaders are still trying to solve current problems or challenges with outdated ways of seeing the work and doing the work.” — Leadership coach Pamela J. Green

That done, Green recommends that leaders focus on two areas. First is increased communication with current employees: more frequent check-ins, even short ones, and clearer statements about the organization’s direction. Just as important, leaders should think about their organization’s hiring processes. Complacency in hiring can reinforce biases, which leads to less diverse organizations and more general dissatisfaction.

“Senior leadership teams have to shift their thinking,” she said. “When a position comes open, senior leaders shouldn’t be thinking about their silos, but how do they appropriate resources that are good for the organization. Leaders often go the path of least resistance—which is their biases. Leaders need help selecting the best candidate, rooting out biases, and doing a better job sourcing diverse candidates.”

Leaders as Sponsors

Blalock prefers the word “sponsorship” to describe the kind of role leaders should take toward staff management. Sponsorship in this context requires a deliberate effort to understand employees and support their careers. Such efforts can be as simple as making sure that employees have opportunities to attend high-level meetings and provide input with the board chair and other leaders.

“Being very intentional about creating sponsorship opportunities for your team is an intangible thing that keeps people sticking with their current position,” she said.

While pay isn’t everything, Blalock is skeptical that leaders will naturally develop these empathy and communication skills without additional compensation. “I don’t truly believe a leader, particularly the executive leadership team, including the CEO, will feel really incentivized to stretch themselves unless there’s some kind of financial bonus compensation,” she said. But she says the entire organization will likely see the benefits of the new approach.

“What we need now are not managers but the leadership mindset that can guide people through new ways of being and new ways of doing the work,” Green said. “But that does require a level and a degree of empathy that maybe some leaders have abandoned over time.”

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel.

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