Innovating our way to new models of leadership

As the Israel-Hamas war unfolds, business leaders are yet again finding themselves in a position where they are compelled to take a public stance on a geopolitical crisis.

It wasn’t always this way. A decade ago, corporate America leaders rarely weighed in on major news events or social issues. But societal expectations have changed. An overwhelming majority of consumers expect companies to take public positions on social issues. Employees also want their employers to engage, with three out of four saying businesses should take a position on issues even when they aren’t directly relevant to their business.

“People see their employer as the most trusted institution,” said Ellyn Shook, Accenture’s chief people and human resources leader. Shook pointed to the Edelman Trust Barometer, which shows that despite a polarized society, businesses are trusted more than nongovernmental organizations, governments, and the media. 

“We have an obligation to create an environment where people feel they can have conversations, have debates, and have challenges—as long as, at our company, people respect our core values, respect our unwavering commitment to inclusion and diversity,” said Shook. “It all starts with listening to your people and giving them a safe forum to have sometimes not easy conversations.” 

Pat Wadors, chief people officer at UKG, agreed, saying employers should speak out more loudly when world events impact the core tenets of an organization’s purpose. 

“Organizations will figure out those three or four things and stick to that,” said Wadors. “Because you cannot, as an organization, speak on everything that’s around the world all the time because someone is going to feel left out. Having some framework is always healthy.”

Shook and Wadors spoke with Fortune CEO Alan Murray on Monday in a virtual conversation that spotlighted the need for a new model of leadership in the wake of the COVID pandemic. 

Shook said three leadership characteristics have been dialed up in recent years: compassion, learning, and humility. 

“Leaders need to be learners in order to be successful and stay out in front,” said Shook. Compassion, meanwhile, isn’t just about being empathic, but actually doing something about it. And as for humility, leaders must recognize the voices in their organizations, among their customers or clients, and the local community. 

At Accenture, Shook said, they ask a fairly simple question: Are people better off working there? The answer is measured through responses to four questions: Are people healthy and well? Do they feel connected and a sense of belonging? Do they wake up every day and feel they have a purpose? And are they building market-relevant skills? 

“When organizations can ring the bell on all four of those things simultaneously, that is when you can unlock two-thirds of someone’s potential at work,” said Shook. “And that takes a new brand of leadership.”

Wadors said how we measure successful leaders also needs to evolve. Previously, managers were judged based on how well their direct reports scored them. But today, a leader should be evaluated by the total experience of every employee they interact with daily, not just direct reports.

“Learn enough to know how to fix things and care for them,” said Wadors. “That is your job, to create a healthy workplace for all.”

Employees, Wadors added, are demanding change from their leaders and expect more honest conversations about today’s challenges. 

“We are turning a corner where mental health is spoken about, a sense of belonging is more mainstream than ever before, and knowing that someone cares about me in the workplace, these are becoming more of the DNA that I see all the time being built into technology, the process, and purpose statements,” said Wadors. “I’m very optimistic.” 

To be sure, progress can face setbacks. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in June to ban race-conscious admissions at colleges, anti-discrimination policies that have become a standard across corporate America are facing legal challenges. When asked by Murray if this has changed their approach, both Shook and Wadors stood firm on diversity commitments. 

“Diversity is a business issue,” said Shook. “We need cognitive diversity to deliver innovation to our clients’ doorsteps.” 

“If you are inclusive, all tides rise,” said Wadors, who pointed to the example of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which protects people with disabilities but has ultimately extended coverage to other groups as well. “Diversity of thought brings us strong, better outcomes,” said Wadors. “I think people are leaning in to that. They might just change their language; I don’t think the goalposts change.” 

The acceleration of generative artificial intelligence in the workplace is another hot topic that human resources leaders are keeping an eye on. Disruptive technology gives HR an opportunity to look ahead, said Shook. Accenture has identified 12 roles that will be new or need to skill up for generative AI. Shook said most people want to learn new things and as long as organizations are transparent about where they are headed, employees will feel better about the journey. 

“If you have people that aspire to do new things and can learn, you can move your workforce pretty quickly toward the future,” said Shook.

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