22 February, 2019

From people manager to thought leader

Mint By Vineet Nayar
  • As routine tasks are automated, humans will have to learn the art of inspiring others around them
  • The world of management as we knew it is dead, as are the typical management pyramids

As I fly around the world looking closely at organizations and talking to their leaders, I get a sense that an increasing number are becoming incremental in thought and uninspiring in vision. This explains disengaged workforces, low innovation, and a culture of blame, all adding up to lost market and mind share. More leaders are taking their organizations into such dead zones because they don’t appreciate the full implications of certain historical facts.

The industrial era brought the science of management centre stage, delivering great results. The digital era, in contrast, demands high doses of innovation, not just process improvements. You need to build organizations that have a culture of rapid experimentation and innovation. This need inspired and freethinking leaders, not managers trapped in a monitoring and supervisory mind set.

BREAKING PYRAMIDS 

The world of management as we knew it is dead, as are the typical management pyramids. Millennials are far more open, connected and collaborative in the workplace. They shouldn’t be expected to follow a traditional command and control structure. Employees don’t want to be managed and organized in rows and columns. They will not fall in line with an obsolete hierarchy.

If you have any doubt about this, look at the way children are leading change in gun laws in the US after the fatal school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Their desire to get what they want for their generation is not going to be contained by the prevailing norms of change-making.
The progressive advances in technology have added fuel to the trend of making the manager’s role redundant. The knowledge they brought to the workspace is now readily available online.

Their analytical capabilities are slowly being replaced with artificial intelligence and data analytics, and their routine tasks can all be carried out with an app. While technology is making managing obsolete, the task of leading and inspiring remains an open field. If we do not have inspiring leaders, the future of work is quite bleak as we will continue to have these managers operating in a redundant paradigm, creating chaos and distress for employees around them. But is this entirely the managers’ fault?

I believe that the journey of creating an inspiring leader starts at school and unless we fix the broken education system today, the future does not hold promise. Let me explain.
In my experience of running global corporations, individual excellence comes from three things. One, discovering your passion. Two, learning the skills to excel in that field. And finally, pursuing that passion with relentless hard work, or a work ethic that supports superlative productivity.Now increasing numbers of children know what they are passionate about because they experiment with ideas and experiences more than ever before, but the next two steps of learning the relevant skills and developing a rigorous work ethic haven’t been developed well.

Public education—as we know it today—was institutionalized after the industrial revolution, when knowledge dissemination was the biggest priority. Before this, knowledge was the preserve of the elite. Schooling came to be defined by rote learning, something that served the needs of the 19th century well.

As we left industrialization behind and moved into a globalized world and economy, other forms of learning started receiving better rewards in the markets. Divergent and innovative thinking led to the proliferation of innovation-led disruptive models of growth. Our education system, however, remained firmly stuck in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Sadly, edtech interventions fail to see the problems and continue to function as knowledge-givers. The child learns in half the time but misses out on the process of learning and discovery. I have no problem with knowledge gathering, but I wish we used the time saved to teach other skills.

It is time for both classroom interactions and edtech interventions to focus on building the skills that current pedagogy doesn’t address.

Skills such as problem solving, collaboration, design thinking, creativity and learning agility, which will gain currency as artificial intelligence takes care of mechanical and repetitive jobs. Robots will solve knowledge problems at a fraction of the time it takes a human being, and so humans have to learn the art of not just applying knowledge to solve real-world problems but also inspiring others around them to do the same.

THREE IMPROBABLE QUESTIONS

I have three improbable questions that could help you transform the way you think about the future of work and leadership. First, are robots going to sit on corporate boards? Artificial intelligence has made rapid strides, driven by advances in data collection and analytics. AI will not only free people from repetitive mental tasks but also be ten times better. Expecting certain high-level intellectual decisions, such as the ones boards make, to be taken by robots isn’t such a far-fetched thought.

Second, are university campuses going to become theme parks for knowledge? Augmented and virtual reality will go mainstream in education, skill development, innovation and design. Learning can be at your own speed and in your own way by being in the situation rather that writing a thesis on it.

Third, will human interactions become rare? As the cost of sensors continues to decline and computing power increases, all kinds of devices will become connected to the internet, talking to each other and knowing our next step before we take it. Will we get used to this proactive and predictable service that will alter human interaction as we know?

ROLE OF HUMANS IN A CONNECTED WORLD

One question on everyone’s mind is whether this connected, automated age we are moving towards will have roles for humans. In the future, I believe that jobs that require creativity, abstract thinking, and adaptability in unpredictable situations will grow exponentially.

Among the top jobs of the future would be that of the data scientist—who can process and spot opportunities or offer analysis from the data that is mined by the algorithms and databases.

Then comes the robot engineers and operators—people who will have the technical know-how to help run the new technology world. And, of course, we will have innovators or solution providers who work on solving the global and local challenges in the interconnected world.

For me, the future of work depends on how well we invest in creating inspiring leaders with the ability to create next-gen jobs, and how they start putting their heart into inspiring people to do amazing work that only humans can. That is the human way.

The writer is founder-chairman of Sampark Foundation and a former CEO of HCL Technologies. He is also part of ‘Thinkers 50’, a global community of business leaders.