Why the way we do business needs to change 


Stuck in old ways in a new business world? Blaire Palmer shares key tips to modernise your approach and succeed today

With a few minor tweaks, we still run our organisations and organise our people the same way we have done for more than 200 years. We judge people by their working hours, we have a career ladder which goes only in one direction – up. We try to motivate employees with a new job title, a pay rise and a bonus. We talk about engagement and empowerment, but we still have a hierarchy where we closely supervise people, withhold sensitive information from junior staff, and insist on the most senior leaders signing off people’s expenses. 

Trust is essential if our organisations are to be truly agile, able to flex quickly to changing market demands 

At the same time, changing expectations by employers, changing expectations of employees, the long tail of Covid, the cost of living, challenges with the supply of goods, the climate crisis, geo-political uncertainty around the world and, now, generative AI, all point to one conclusion – the Industrial Age, and the socio-economic foundations which underpinned it, is well and truly over.

What might have worked then, cannot work today because the realities of operating have become so different that new rules must apply. 

The dwindling returns of outdated practices  

No surprise that we are experiencing massive diminishing returns. It is harder to recruit and retain employees. We have issues with burnout. It is harder to get employees to trust their leaders and, for us in the L&D world, it’s harder to justify budgets for training programmes or convince people to step away from their overwhelming ‘to-do list’ to actually attend.  

When they do, they can’t help but talk about the pressure they are under and the unrealistic expectations of their own managers…something which we often feel unable to address in any meaningful way. It’s just how things are.   

The problem is that we are using Victorian beliefs, attitudes and practices towards productivity, people and the part business plays in society when they are well past their sell-by-date.  

It is time – beyond time – to rethink how we capitalise on the innately human qualities of our people and how our businesses fit into society, if we are to ensure our organisations can survive, let alone thrive, in this new world. 

Extending the willingness to trust 

Trust is the foundation of a new approach to doing business. At the most senior level, business leaders need to understand the ways in which they are reinforcing the belief that they can’t be trusted and that they don’t trust others.  

They do this in subtle ways. They delegate tasks but retain decision-making authority or overrule decisions they have empowered others to make. They check people’s work or step in and “rescue” people. They talk about the organisational values but don’t stand up for those values when it costs the business hard cash to do so. Some haven’t done any leadership development in years (if ever) despite encouraging more junior people to participate in training. Consequently, junior people, through their training, become hyper-aware of the shortcomings of their leaders – shortcomings the leaders themselves are oblivious to. 

Recognising leadership shortcomings 

Leadership development is personal development. When the most senior leaders increase their self-awareness they begin to see the ways their lifetime of beliefs impact the culture, and the ways they themselves are blockers to people doing their best work.  

Particularly in an age of AI, the only differentiator between a human employee and a non-human bot is our emotion. It makes no sense to keep that one quality out of the room. If anything, a future where we work in collaboration with this technology necessitates us embracing our emotional intelligence as the unique value only a human employee brings to work. 

It can be sobering. I recall a CEO taking me to one side during a board level leadership development workshop and telling me he’d just realised what a fool he’d been, for years. All I could do was congratulate him and ask him what he was going to do about that. 

Trust is essential if our organisations are to be truly agile, able to flex quickly to changing market demands. 

This means leaders need to work on their willingness to trust others. They need to become skilled at loosening the reins and giving away their authority. People can only be empowered to the extent to which a leader is willing to give away their power. 

Their role becomes wise counsel and coach, getting themselves out of the way whenever possible. They need to push decisions down as low as they dare – and then lower. And they need to support people as they learn, by doing, how to do things better. They need to acknowledge that, as smart as they are, they aren’t as smart as everyone combined.  

Enlightened business 

This shift cascades into a transformation in the way we do business. It breaks the stranglehold that hierarchy has on our organisations, which currently slows down decisions, makes roles unrewarding, and disconnects those in the know on the ground from those in the ivory tower at the top. 

It shifts the kinds of leaders we need, from those with deep technical expertise but, perhaps, questionable emotional intelligence, to those who believe most people are trying to do their best work and have the capability, with the right support.   

It changes how people relate to the client. If we believe people should be treated like we trust them within the business, we find new respect, an ability to really listen, and a willingness to come up with creative solutions to the problems our customers and clients are facing. We are trusted and, in turn, we trust. 

And it changes the nature of training, particularly for the most senior leaders in our business. It puts the focus on their capacity to become better versions of themselves. An organisation can only be as sophisticated as its senior leaders. They are the barrier to a more enlightened business.  

 Blaire Palmer is a former BBC journalist turned keynote speaker on the future of leadership and work, and author of Punks in Suits 

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