In prior industrial eras, leaders were successful if they could execute on a clear, stable organizational strategy by translating it into a set of tasks that could be delegated, repeated and measured. In the Fourth Industrial Revolution, business, consumers, technology and work are rapidly evolving. Leaders now need a new set of abilities and behaviors. The ones who can shift to a focus of tuning in; navigating and making sense of the changes around them; and responding to people, rather than predicting and controlling processes, are better positioned for success.

How do organizations who have been successful in the former paradigm maintain their size and growth while shifting to keep up with the changing technology, ideology and general business landscape? They have to empower their leaders to think and show up differently.

We need to be more human than ever in order to adapt our roles alongside swift technological advances, and our jobs are more intensely focused on people than process. Developing leaders’ ability to tune in with empathy and respond with curiosity emerges from developing and exercising vulnerability: a state of not being in control, not knowing the answer, letting others see our limits and risking failure. This vulnerability opens up leaders to new learning; deepens empathy; and supports a culture where participation, risk-taking, and authentic connection can thrive. That’s how companies succeed in today’s world.

If we want leaders to be people-first, the architects of leadership development initiatives need to rethink the way they offer learning. The most successful leadership development initiatives include experiences in which vulnerability is inherent to the experience itself – not just a concept to discuss. Including unorthodox, immersive and unfamiliar experiences can challenge leaders to practice tuning in to their customers and teams and respond with new insights in a whole new way. Here are several approaches for your next initiative.

1. Directly Experience New Modalities and Methods.

Leaders need to embrace experiences that “stretch” them to learn to tune in to what is in front of them instead of relying on what they know. For example, leaders at a major automotive company needed to understand transportation of the future, but many had no first-hand experience with unusual transportation methods and what was working and not working.

In response to this need, the program “Mobilitypalooza” was born. Leaders set out on a scavenger hunt across large urban areas (including London, Shanghai and Detroit) with the condition that they use alternative methods of transportation for each leg: ride-sharing, rental scooters, buses, rental bikes and hoverboards. Upon returning, they shared the pain points they discovered, possible solutions and how they were touched by the reality of the future. The exercise required them to be open to discovery and experimentation, and they cultivated empathy as they saw the world through the eyes of their customers.

2. Engage and Listen to Hear What the Customer Really Wants.

To bolster a people-centered approach, leaders need to understand the user experience. In one leadership development program, this need was so central that manufacturing leaders invested an entire day with a customer and lived a day “in their shoes” to help them understand how they use their product.

Developing the ability to tune in to customers can be as simple as polling them to find out what they actually want. The key is that the leaders themselves take the time to interact with the end user and actually hear them, rather than acquiring this information through summary reports.

These experiences provide leaders with a rich and profound awareness of customer needs and experiences and challenge them to build the fundamental skills of inquiring, interviewing, observing and challenging their own assumptions.

3. Practice Communicating with Authenticity and Telling the Story of the Road Ahead.

Leaders who are learning to lead in this new era need to be able to make sense of their observations, insights, needs and challenges and then share a compelling vision of the road ahead – even when there are a lot of unknowns. Developing the fundamental communication skills of listening, expressing empathy, storytelling and coaching can help leaders feel confident engaging their teams to follow them on the unmapped road ahead.

Automotive executives participated in an interactive workshop to practice speaking authentically. They crafted a set of stories that offered their people a window into who they are, framed failure as opportunity, acknowledged the emotional impact and necessity of change, and painted a picture of what the future holds. Practicing new organizational messages with purpose and presence enabled them to prepare themselves for the inevitable moments when they would need to rally support, foster engagement, address discord or refocus a team after failure.

When the group of executives was polled months after the overall initiative to find out what new skills they were using, the overwhelmingly majority reported using communication and storytelling skills to help them navigate their day-to-day challenges in transforming the organization.

An Invitation to You

These approaches for developing a people-first leadership mindset highlight the importance of experimentation, reflection and practice alongside other people. Trying out new skills can be awkward, and change is universally hard – especially when it’s something as fundamental as embracing vulnerability in order to be more adaptive and connected. It is crucial to give your leaders time to practice in safe spaces with one another.

It is both exciting and daunting to be leading learning initiatives at a time when the path forward is rapidly changing. Expanding one’s capacity for vulnerability is powerful, because it encourages others to share their ideas, feedback and experiments and add to the dialogue. In that spirit, we invite you to be vulnerable and tell us how your organization is trying and succeeding – and how it is trying and failing. Tweet us @TrainingIndustr, @barbgamm and @elsapowel. As a collective community of learning leaders, we can accelerate our response and learn together.

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