Leadership—New Skills for an Age of Flux

Transcript

Narrator

The future of project management is changing fast. On Projectified™ with PMI we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s really ahead for the profession—and your career.

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Stephen W. Maye

Hello, I'm Stephen Maye, and this is Projectified™ with PMI. I'm here with my co-host, Tegan Jones, and in this episode we're looking at leadership—and what it takes to be an effective leader in a rapidly shifting business environment.

Of course, some leadership skills are timeless. Leaders always need to have vision. They need to be driven. They need to be able influence others in some way or another. But the demand for other skills really ebbs and flows in response to changes in the market.

Tegan Jones

It’s interesting to see how organizations respond to those shifts. Because sometimes, you know, an existing leadership team can adapt and evolve—but sometimes they need a fresh perspective.

It kind of reminds me of a movie that came out last year: “Darkest Hour,” where Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill. Did you see that one?

Stephen W. Maye

I hate to confess, I have not yet seen it. It is on the list. I have not yet seen it.

Tegan Jones

Well, it was really good! It told the story of how Winston Churchill became prime minister of England during World War II. And as someone who is not a history buff, I was really surprised to learn that Churchill wasn’t the obvious choice at that time.

He wasn’t well-liked, and he didn’t have a lot of the typical leadership qualities that people expected to see in the prime minister. He was gruff. He disagreed with people. He did things his own way. 

But his unique way of approaching conflict allowed him to stop the advance of the German army and ultimately lead the Allies to victory. And today he’s one of the most respected leaders in history—and that’s precisely because he brought the right skills to the table at the right time.

Stephen W. Maye

Leadership is definitely situational, and that means leaders need to be ready to adapt. And the skills they have relied upon to get them to where they are today may not be the same skills that they need to succeed in the future.

And we actually have some data from Deloitte that shows how those skill sets are shifting. Deloitte’s 2018 global CIO survey asked respondents which leadership skills had contributed the most to their personal success as a leader thus far. Then it asked them to rank which skills they believed would be most important in the next three years. And there were a few really interesting findings there.

For instance, two-thirds of CIOs said that being results-oriented had been a key driver of their success. But only half said that would be a priority in the next three years. Looking ahead, two-thirds of CIOs say delivering major organizational change is what will drive their success in the future, while only 57 percent say that that skill set was a priority in their past.

Tegan Jones

That shift does kind of make sense to me. But one of the stats that really surprised me from that survey was the fact that CIOs are de-prioritizing this concept of “grit”—or “doing whatever it takes to succeed.”

About half of CIOs said that grit is one of the things that got them to where they are today, but only a third say that it’s going to be equally important going forward.

Stephen W. Maye

I must confess I struggle with this one a little bit. Because it almost sounds like we’re downplaying or minimizing the importance of hard work. 

I don’t think that’s what we’re saying. I think hard work will always be important, but I think it makes sense that it’s kind of table stakes at this point. And that working harder can only get you so far. At some point, leaders must, as we often say, work smarter

And that’s something that I had the great pleasure of discussing with Robert Safian, who’s probably best known for his tenure as the editor of Fast Company. 

During his time there, he helped the magazine transform from a print-only publication to a fully integrated digital media company—and that required a major rethinking of how he led his team. He had some great stories to share, and we’ll get to those later in the episode.

Tegan Jones

I always love to hear leaders like Robert Safian talking about how they were able to bring their big transformative visions to life. But I want to start by talking about how you get there. So in our first segment we’re going to look at the skills that project and program managers need to develop if they want to rise up in the ranks.

Barry Draskovich, who is the vice president of program and contract management at Parker Aerospace, outlines four key skills that he thinks people should focus on if they want to be seen as someone who can take charge and lead the organization in the right direction. 

Barry’s the executive sponsor of Paker’s PMO and oversees all of its project management activities. So he’s got a pretty clear vision of what he’s looking for in future leaders.

Stephen W. Maye

As he should. Let’s hear what he has to say.

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Barry Draskovich

I think that there's four areas that somebody should really be paying attention to as they move through their career and get into more of a leadership role. Number one, it's sharpen your leadership skills. Number two, it's volunteer to take on the hard challenges.

Number three, it's take some risks. And number four, it's never stop learning. So the first one: Sharpen your strategic skills. We really tend to focus on tactile execution, especially engineers. They want to just get into the weeds, the day-to-day activities. I have a problem to solve. Let's solve this problem. But they never look up and try to figure out what's the bigger strategic perspective. 

And I can say that about engineers cause I'm an engineer myself, and I've been in that same situation, but I think that probably same mentality or situation resides across all of the functions within our organization and all the leaders. It's how do you sharpen your strategic skills to be able to figure out where we are today and where we need to be in five or 10 years in putting that plan together on how you get there. The second one I said was volunteer to take on the hard challenges. If you're just doing a great job on a project that's sort of so-so hum-hum, you're not going to get noticed. You need to stick your neck out and ask the question, where is my value needed most within the organization? And jump on those kinds of projects. The thing is they're not going to be easy, they're going to be very challenging, but I think it's really important that you take on those challenging roles and demonstrate your skills on something that's impactful to the organization. 

The third one was take risks. Don't be afraid to fail. I think my greatest learnings occurred on projects and initiatives that I undertook that didn't go well, and you look back and you say, "Why didn't it go well? And how would I do that differently next time?" If we always focus on the successes, I don't think you ever really learn cause you use the same recipe over and over and over again and you never improve yourself.

And then, the last one is directly related to that. It's never stop learning. We all have shortfalls. We all have blind spots. I think it's important that we understand what those shortfalls and blind spots are in ourselves and do something to directly impact them.

We can always improve our ability to communicate with each other. We can always improve the ability that we influence, the work that's being done, and negotiate with each other. So I think it's really on the soft skills side that we have our biggest gaps within our workforce, and that's not just a rank and file workforce. That's the leadership workforce also. So I think focusing on those soft skills is really where we need to be paying most of our attention.

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Stephen W. Maye

You know, being comfortable with failure is something a lot of guests have touched on recently. And it makes sense, with markets evolving so quickly, there’s an increased need to make decisions faster and take more risks in the face of many more unknowns than perhaps we were dealing with in the past.

Tegan Jones

Yeah, and I think a lot of organizations are starting to see that, in this environment, senior leaders can’t make big decisions in a vacuum. They need to bring in more voices and validate their thinking way more than they’ve done in the past. 

And that’s ok. Nobody has all the answers. Plus, being in a leadership position can actually create blind spots around issues that are pretty obvious to the people working under you.

Stephen W. Maye

That was one of the themes of my conversation with Robert Safian, the founder of The Flux Group and former editor of Fast Company. 

He talked a lot about what it takes to build the kind of culture where ideas flow freely across the organization, and he had some pretty good advice for leaders dealing with digital disruption. 

Tegan Jones

He’s had such an incredible career, so I’m really looking forward to hearing what he has to say. 

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Stephen W. Maye

Bob, you've talked a lot about gen flux, or generation flux, and the age of flux. And you've really made this a focal point in your work in the last couple of years. Give us a little background on that concept since it informs so much of what you communicate these days.

Robert Safian

Sure. Well, generation flux to me refers to two things. It refers to the era that I believe we're living through now, this time of rapid, high-velocity change that seems to show little signs of slowing down. And I really believe that there is a sea change underway in the way our world operates driven largely by technology, but by the combination of technology and cultural factors. And this era requires new kinds of skills and new kinds of approaches for all of us. And so generation flux also refers to a group of people, to the kinds of people who are best positioned to thrive in an environment that is moving around as quickly as this one is. When I talk about this group of people, they're not defined by chronological age. Right? You can be young or old and be a member of gen flux. The key attribute is your mindset and a willingness and ability to learn and adapt to all of these changes that are coming at us faster and faster than ever.

Stephen W. Maye

You've spent a lot of time paying attention to trends in business, trends in technology. And really that also translates over to trends in executive leadership. So what are some of those trends that are influencing the mindset that today's generation or up-and-coming generation of executive leaders really have to understand?

Robert Safian

The initial round of my research and my reporting around generation flux was about the reality that, not necessarily just job hopping, but the changing of jobs, changing of careers, changing of topics. This is a constant state that we have to get comfortable with. And I think there are a lot of ramifications for that on the part of leaders about how you think about building a team, whether retention, which is the way classic HR measures management, right is really the goal. So the best way to attract and retain the talent you need at any time, and it's a much more fluid definition about what your work force is and what your teams are, and that people may work for you, and may leave, and they may come back. So that was sort of the first phase of what I looked at with generation flux. The next phase focused even more directly on leadership, and initially, my expectation was that the primary feature of a generation flux organization would be a real bottom-up sensibility. That ideas are coming from the bottom and leadership is less important. And as I looked at this more and more, I looked at the companies that I think represent this kind of idea, it became apparent that leadership was more important than ever because creating an environment where those kinds of ideas can flow in both directions up and down, and clarifying what the mission and the purpose of the organization is so that those ideas can be clarified and funneled in the right places, makes leadership more important than ever. 

Stephen W. Maye

So how does that then affect strategic decision-making, whether it's in the major programs or whether it's in the corporate strategy at the high level? But how does that culture perform differently when it comes to making strategic choices?

Robert Safian 

The role of the leader is to set a framework, right? We've always had discussions about how leadership is all about setting a vision for an organization. But effectively, the decision-making was very narrow in hierarchically designed organizations. The recognition in an age of flux is that the opportunities and the challenges that we're being faced with are much more varied than they've ever been before. 

You never know what kind of brain or combination of brains—combination of intelligences, right--are going to be ideal for each of the new kinds of problems that are coming our way. And so leadership requires creating an environment where all of those ideas can flow and where action can be taken on them, sometimes quickly, without having to go all the way up the chain of command. But then it requires that the leader themself has to be much clearer and the organization has to be clearer about what are we really in business to do. What are we really trying to do? What are our core values, our core approaches?

Stephen W. Maye

You led Fast Company as it transitioned from being really a print magazine to a digital media company. How did you know it was time to make that change? And then to connect that decision-making to the execution, what were the early steps that you took to start moving in that direction?

Robert Safian

Listen, I always loved putting together a print magazine. It was a fun task. It had a lot of impact. At the same time, I had to recognize, looking at where my readers, my audience was spending their time and where they were moving, I could not be...you know, beholden to just one medium. Just one outlet. That became the prevailing idea: listen, we have to meet our audience where they are and wherever they are, we have to give them that experience. The challenge was how to, you know, make all of that variety of content feel cohesive. And a lot of that had to do with sort of recognizing what the strategy was behind our brand and our business, what we were doing that was different. And there were tools that we would use at different times to sort of refocus ourselves about what are we really about? What makes something a Fast Company story/event/video. What is that? And those were exercises that we never stopped doing. We would test with every project.

Stephen W. Maye

As you saw the output of Fast Company shifting so dramatically as you moved into this digital space with that being the focus, really creating a digital media company, how did you reshape the teams or reshape the talent pool in order to deliver all that vision?

Robert Safian

So you're building a portfolio that is not defined by hierarchy in the same ways that we have historically done it. Right? You have people at different levels that you're filling in. But you're doing it in terms of their capabilities around what you're specializing in and what you're iterating on. And there's an acknowledgment in your talent building and your process that some of those folks are not going to be with you for as long. I spent some time earlier this year with Daniel Ek, who's the founder and CEO of Spotify, the music streaming company in Stockholm. And Daniel talks about how his key leadership team, he's not hiring them. Well, he's giving them, you know, jobs and titles. He thinks about it that he's hiring them for a mission, for a specific mission that is going to last for two years.

He's built his structure and his team around that idea. You know, that the challenge of the next two years may require a different kind of talent than what I had the last two years.

Stephen W. Maye

When you look across the vast pool of leaders that you have access to, what do you see as the gap? What are some of the key skills, whether those show up as hard skills or soft skills? What are some of the key skills that you see as lacking or often lacking across that large pool of leaders today?

Robert Safian 

In many ways, the hardest thing that we all have to grapple with, whether we’re leaders or wherever we are in an organization is the resistance to change that is a natural sort of human way of approaching things. We tend to want to make things stable. Right? And it's hard to say, well, actually, making things stable is not really my job. My job is to make an environment that is creative so that we can continue to do the work of value that we do and remain relevant in doing it. 

You know, there’s a professor at Harvard Business School who I talked to a while ago, Hiro Takeuchi who talked to me about the difference between sort of outside-in strategy and inside-out strategy. You know, the idea of outside-in strategy that you look out to a marketplace and you see that there's a gap there and so you create a product to fill that gap, and then you expand from that niche. And that's very, that’s very practical and makes a lot of sense. Works often. Inside-out is different, and it's sort of you have a vision of a world that doesn't exist, and you're there trying to bring it to fruition. Right. This is what Amazon is about. Right, this is what Google is about. It’s sort of, there is a world of the future. Even Facebook. And you know, I think modern leaders have to marry both of these things. Right? You can't just be inside-out and you can't just be outside-in. You have to bring both of those things to bear on the challenges and the environment that we're in. But if you have that inside-out vision, if you recognize or have an appreciation about where you're trying to get to, that becomes the filter for making all of those next-stage decisions.

Stephen W. Maye

That's fascinating. And I was just thinking as you were describing that and sharing some of the people that you've talked with, you have probably had conversations with as many of the relevant leaders, the kind of leaders we're talking about, as anybody on the planet, at this point. So what is it that stands out to you when you think across the leaders that are succeeding in this generation flux environment. What is it that's the unexpected thing that has surfaced for you?

Robert Safian

You know, the thing that tends to unify a lot of these characters is their incredible passion for what they're trying to create. And I know that may sound simple, but you know some folks just have unbelievable desire and passion about wanting to bring something into the world. And you can't manufacture that enthusiasm. And that allows them to move through what are an unending stream of disappointments and detours. None of this stuff happens in a straight line. It looks like it happens in a straight line. We talk about this term innovation that gets used and thrown around, as if innovation is just like something that you do this and, you know, let me just be like Apple. And you know, here. It's going to happen. As opposed to recognizing that, hey, when Steve Jobs first heard about the idea of the app store, you know, he didn't want there to be an app store.

Remember you used to not be able to put any apps on your iPhone. Right? You had to jailbreak the phone to put any apps on it. This was not something...he wanted to control all of that. And, over time, he realized, oh, actually this is a good thing. I can build on this. The passion about the way he saw technology in your hands being able to sort of change and drive the future allowed him to, to be open to things that were different from what his, you know, starting position was. But once he saw that, he didn't resist it and he didn't...he owned it. You know. He owned it. And I think that’s what starts to happen with these leaders. They become as passionately embracing of the next turn as they are the one they're in now.

Stephen W. Maye

Bob, you've been incredibly generous with your time. It's been a pleasure talking with you. Before you take off, I want to ask you one more thing. So as we've talked about all these skills and characteristics and capabilities and mindsets that play into being gen flux leaders and the future gen flux leaders, does character play a role?

Robert Safian

Well, I do think that having a mission and a purpose as a businessperson, as an individual, is a key filter in deciding what kind of place you're going to work, the way you're going to work, and how you're going to work. 

I believe business is a vehicle for progress. I believe every business is a platform that can be used to improve the human condition. And I think that businesspeople who recognize that and lean into that and use their opportunity for that higher purpose that that will create better businesses, more satisfying careers, and hopefully a more meaningful world for all of us.

Stephen W. Maye

I'm going to paraphrase. Bob Safian says use your powers for good. And with that, Bob Safian gets the last word. Bob, it has been a pleasure having you here. Thank you.

Robert Safian

Thanks very much. 

Narrator

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