Managing Teams—and Careers—in the Age of Disruption

This article is reprinted with permission from the Harvard Professional Development Programs blog.

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.”

“The tried and true way of doing business that has brought success in the past is suddenly shifting under everyone’s feet.”

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, who teaches leadership courses and programs for Harvard Extension School.

“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 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.”

“We’re all conditioned these days to grab for the next transformational idea, 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.”

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.

“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.

“But if you’ve done your homework and can bring into the discussion factors such as the company’s identity and culture, what capabilities and talents you have in-house or need to develop or acquire, what’s happening in society that’s driving change, your customers’ pain points, what the competition is doing—those are big-picture questions a leader should ask,” says Rucker. “They don’t obstruct disruptive innovation. They make it more strategic.”

Stine says that given the growing trend for companies to have flat, decentralized organizational structures, leaders must communicate a clear strategic vision.

“Being able to articulate a coherent sense of your organization as a whole is a way to create a common understanding and build consensus among people who are collaborating across organizational boundaries, working for two or three reports at the same time, and are maybe even based in different countries,” she says. “It’s also a smart career move to go the extra mile to differentiate your ability to think strategically in a complex environment when others may be laser-focused on meeting the next deadline.”

Autonomy, Trust, and Communication

Managers and leaders involved in disruptive change are increasingly doing so in workplaces that have themselves been disrupted by technology, new cultural norms, and the realities of doing business in a global environment.

More people are working remotely, collaborating on complex projects with unfamiliar colleagues, connecting with customers across multiple time zones, and relying on video conferencing instead of face-to-face contact. Managers need to find new ways to build relationships with their teams, monitor their performance, and help them succeed.

Practices such as telecommuting, flexible hours, and “hot desk” offices —where workstations are claimed anew each day and may not even equal the number of employees—are emblematic of a new bargain that’s being struck between workers and supervisors in highly innovative companies.

“It’s an environment where workers are being given more autonomy with the expectation that they will be more self-motivated,” Rucker says. “If talented people have more choice about how and where they work, the theory is that they will engage more, be more committed, and push themselves for the results you want to see even when it’s difficult. They’ll be thinking about work, dreaming about work, and making connections all the time—not just when they are in the office.”

Trust and communication are essential to the success of this paradigm. Even when deadlines are being met, deliverables are happening on time, strategic objectives are on target, and customers are happy, managers can find it challenging to supervise people they may not see every day.

“If you haven’t heard from someone on your team for a week, she could be working 24/7 on an amazing breakthrough for your company,” Rucker says. “But if she reports to you, there’s some part of you that wants to know she’s not off cliff diving in Bora Bora.”

Checking in without making people think you don’t trust them can be tricky. In nontraditional work environments, Rucker says, a few traditional rules can make everyone’s work life better.

“You can impose guidelines for team members who work remotely, expectations for when they will be available for meetings, and maybe even core hours when everyone will be on site at the same time,” she says.

When people can’t be physically present, “technology makes it possible to knock on their virtual door and instantly drop in via video,” Rucker says.  “It’s a little more difficult to pull off a casual conversation in that case. But the more people get used to it, the easier it gets.”

Stine adds that because virtual work is different, we’re all inventing best practices along the way.

“It’s certainly not rocket science,” Stine says. “You’re still trying to help people work toward a common goal. Traditional managerial skills—self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate, build trust, motivate, and build cohesion—are still important, even if you do it online instead of face-to-face.”

Online or in person, when it comes to establishing relationships, Stine suggests starting with the basics. “Talk about the small stuff: people’s kids, what they did on the weekend, something they told you about their lives the last time they talked to you. Just be human.”

“We’re all our own agents, you can’t be complacent. Be aware of changes in your industry, take calls from recruiters, interview, network, and take steps to get better at what you do.”

Rethinking Career Strategies

To remain relevant in today’s economy, workers at all levels need to apply the mindset of the disruptive innovator to their own careers.

“Predictable career paths are long gone,” Stine says. “Companies are constantly reinventing and reorganizing themselves in new and interesting ways. To stay competitive, managers need to do the same.”

The pace of change is so rapid that in many companies it outpaces the ability to hire or train people with the skills necessary to meet new demands. “Transitioning seamlessly to unfamiliar roles and taking responsibility for acquiring new skills have become part of what workers have to do all the time just to survive,” Stine says.

She urges workers to be visible to their bosses by raising their own profile within the company. “Look for interesting projects and sign on,” she says. “Continue your education—maybe work toward an advanced degree. Not only does it keep you in touch with the latest thinking in your field, but it also shows a level of motivation and drive that earns respect.”

All the while, Stine says managers should continue to do what managers have always done to prepare for the next steps in their career. “We’re all our own agents,” she says. “You can’t be complacent. Be aware of changes in your industry, take calls from recruiters, interview, network, and take steps to get better at what you do.”

In the near future, Rucker believes that technologies such as machine learning, automation, AI, and robotics will strongly influence the skills managers need to succeed.

“Those technologies are changing the way we look at employee capabilities,” Rucker says. “We’re going to need a lot of different kinds of thinkers working together to analyze and use data in the right way at the right time to create new products and services.”

Not all of those thinkers will be in the same location or even in the same company. “The concept that a company will claim 100 percent ownership of a product or an idea is becoming unsustainable,” Rucker says. “We’re going to see more and more networked connections and expanded talent pools with companies, suppliers, independent specialists, and others all contributing ideas and work.”

As companies realign organizational structures and practices to support digital innovation, managers who are skilled collaborators excel.

“The digital workplace is emerging as a place where an individual’s impact can expand exponentially because he or she has established collaborative relationships with the right people—people who have knowledge they can draw on at just the right moment,” Rucker says. “Companies increasingly will look for people who can make a lot of dominoes fall instantly.”

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