Employees today are uncorporate individualists. For a CEO, this makes life almost impossible. How do you make an uncorporate culture, yet still meet corporate targets? How do you liberate people, without unleashing chaos? How do you give people a purpose, without imposing an ideology? How do you lead, when everyone’s their own leader? And how do you do it all fast? In this report, we’ll show how leaders are beginning to create the uncorporation.
For CEOs, what’s changing?
At Wolff Olins, we’ve always been lucky to count the world’s most ambitious leaders as clients.
But leadership practice doesn’t stand still – it’s always evolving into something new. We were interested to know precisely what was changing, so we interviewed 43 CEOs to get their thoughts on where things are headed.
We set out to get a good balance of older and younger companies, as well as of the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa. We also talked to 10 leadership experts, drawn mainly from America and the UK.
And we surveyed over 400 people in their 20s who are the next generation of employees.
Three impossible things
The vast majority – 86% – of CEOs report big changes in their practice.
And the shifts they’re making aren’t simple or easy. Each creates a paradox, a contradiction, almost an impossibility. We were able to broadly characterize these changes as:
To create sustainable performance, there’s a marked swing from concentrating on outputs (driving people hard on sales figures, for instance) to inputs (creating a strong, lasting, ethical culture). Overall, 63% of our CEOs talk about a focus on inputs, with this figure consistent across geographies, as well as mature and young companies. Yet building a culture takes time: how can CEOs do this while still meeting short-term corporate targets?
In turbulent times, consensus is just too slow. Instead, many CEOs prefer to experiment on many fronts with many small teams – 86% of our CEOs are actively doing this. The figures are highest, unsurprisingly, in America (92%) and in newer companies (95%). Yet this kind of distributed leadership can lead to disintegration and even disaster: how can CEOs liberate, yet also keep their organisation in one piece?
And in the age of the tech-powered individualist, leaders are motivating people through a shared social purpose – 81% of our CEOs talked about this. Yet individual employees increasingly have their own purposes, and resist corporate conformity. Leaders are starting to find ways to mould their companies around individual employees’ purposes: 42% of our CEOs cited this emerging trend, with Europe (62%) in the lead. But how do you give people purpose without imposing an ideology?
Some of this isn’t new. But there’s more going on than just the usual cycles in management fashion. We believe technology is changing culture everywhere in the world, leading to the emergence of a new model of leadership.
Employees are now more confident, more mobile, more demanding, more idealistic in some cases, and less willing to be company people. Employees, more than ever, are individualists.
Leaders, in response, are learning to be less the visionary, less the sage, less the objective-setter, and more the shaper, the connector, the questioner. And yet at times, they also need to intervene, to insist, to control. It’s a fluid role, its shape not yet clear.
What is clear, as leaders forge their own new models, is that the old ways no longer work. CEOs can’t fall back on best practice. They have to be original. Leadership, more than ever, needs creativity. And achieving the impossible needs the most radical kind of creativity.
We believe that CEOs need to use radical creativity, not just to recognise these impossibilities, but to use the power of paradox to fuel their business. We’re currently exploring this with clients in three ways.
- — fast culture: using the disciplines of design to build – in weeks rather than months – a loose, creative, organic culture, with just enough tight, hard-edged, mechanistic systems, to rapidly accelerate performance.
- — fast tools: equipping people throughout the organisation to think, imagine, experiment, prototype independently, but also to learn and share collectively – fringe experimentation that also enriches the whole organisation.
- — fast platform: using storytelling to give people a sense of corporate purpose, but also to free them to pursue their own purposes, to be their own leaders – and take the organisation further than the CEO ever imagined.
command and control
workers are lazy
so... strict structures are imposed for them to be productive
supervise and measure
motivation and delegation
workers are willing
so... they can be motivated by a vision and rewarded with a career
manage by objectives
focus and liberation
workers are individualists
so... expect them to be their own leaders