Across business sectors today, companies are in hyper-drive, scrambling to come up with—and keep up with—technology breakthroughs that can transform industries overnight. Uncertainty is a given in a digital economy fueled by disruptive innovation. And to be successful in this ever-changing, high-intensity environment, managers need to cultivate a new set of skills.
“It’s especially true for leaders 10 or 12 years into their careers, who may be called on for the first time to spearhead game-changing digital initiatives or to manage others in the wake of disruptive changes,” says Pamela Rucker, a leadership expert. Rucker teaches Leading Through Digital Disruption for Harvard Extension School’s Professional Development Programs.
“Too often,” she says, “leaders find themselves caught in the middle between the expectations CEOs have for how digital will transform their companies, the capabilities and needs of workers, and customer feedback in a marketplace that has its own expectations.”
“We’re all conditioned these days to grab for the next transformational idea,” she says. “But managers who take the time to understand their industry, their competition, their customers, and their company’s organizational structure provide needed context for smart strategic change.” – Pamela Rucker
Millennials add an additional layer of complexity, says executive development expert Jennifer Stine. With this generation now comprising the largest share of the American workforce, mid-career professionals are heading teams and business units where “a new generational mingling” has created a unique dynamic.
“Mid-career professionals—typically generation Xers—came into the workforce when the economy was bad, the job market was tight, and the path to upper management assignments was blocked by Baby Boom executives,” says Stine, a co-instructor of Essential Management Skills for Emerging Leaders.
“Millennials coming into companies today have much higher expectations and are looking for opportunities to advance more quickly,” she says. Gen Xers, who may not have a lot of experience in key management posts themselves, are being called on to step into unfamiliar leadership roles to mentor this new crop of workers—all while responding to a growing array of competing demands from their own bosses, who are driven to stay at the crest of the digital wave.
As they try to gain traction in this environment, it’s common for mid-career managers to experience what Rucker calls “the four Ds” —discomfort, doubt, dissonance, and displacement.
Discomfort and doubt arise when leaders who are new to overseeing digital initiatives are asked to take on the very visible role of disruptor.
Dissonance can arise when the connection between a new digital strategy and what’s happening with customers in the marketplace isn’t clear. “Managers often say they are having meeting after meeting with their teams without reaching any kind of consensus,” Rucker says.
And displacement, she explains, refers to the unsettling feeling that “the tried and true way of doing business that has brought success in the past is suddenly shifting under everyone’s feet.”
A Context for Change
Instead of focusing on the shifting ground, Rucker counsels leaders instead to “look up.”
When disruptive innovation is the order of the day, there’s value in understanding what’s being disrupted.
“We’re all conditioned these days to grab for the next transformational idea,” she says. “But managers who take the time to understand their industry, their competition, their customers, and their company’s organizational structure provide needed context for smart strategic change.”
Meetings that start with a brief statement of the problem and move quickly to an hour of throwing ideas against the wall can be counterproductive.
“Being able to articulate a coherent sense of your organization as a whole is a way to create a common understanding and build consensus ...” – Jenninfer Stine
“One of my favorite quotes is from Albert Einstein,” Rucker says. “He said something like, ‘If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.’”
When the pressure to innovate is intense, she says, “it’s challenging to be the one who stands up and says, ‘Let’s slow down and think about this.’ Managers sometimes see that as a risk.