Leaders and Reverse Shadow: What would it look like?

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The last decade has transformed work and more importantly, lives at work. Macroeconomic shifts and localization trends have joined forces with technological disruption thus redrawing boundaries and notions of corporate work life. What seemed the norm yesterday has now got cast aside as dated. Given this ever-changing milieu of patterns, behaviors and fluid evolution, making and meaning sense has become a task and talent of a rare order. Leaders today find it challenging to cope up with the increasing unpredictability of change and hence need to adopt different measures to succeed in new age environments. A leader today is expected to comprehend this interrelatedness and guide teams and organizations to inclusive prosperity. Sounds utopian but unfortunately is the real job at hand for digital leaders.

As per LBS’s Leadership Institute 2017 Survey amongst 1248 leader respondents, the five toughest challenges facing them today are employee engagement, effective strategy execution, talent management, driving work across organizational boundaries and encouraging collaboration across the organization. The report also cites that the barriers to successful leadership are -focus on operations than self-development, inadequate conflict resolution and learning from past mistakes.

So, how does one become effective? How can leaders break silos and inspire collaboration? How can they make a difference in evolving circumstances? Amongst many leadership traits that have been discussed and detailed out as pertinent, openness stands out as an essential quality. Psychologist Timothy A. Judge and colleagues researched in 2002 that in the Big 5 personality traits, openness to experience was the strongest predictor to leadership in business settings and open individuals are more likely to emerge and be effective as leaders.

What is openness and how can one develop and nurture it? Is there a way by which leaders could prepare ground and grow this trait within themselves? Before we answer the question, let us have a broader understanding of openness. Wiki defines openness as an overarching concept and philosophy that is characterized by an emphasis on transparency and free unrestricted access to knowledge and information as well as collaborative and cooperative management and decision making rather than a central authority. “Openness to Experience” is one of the domains which is used to describe human personality in the Big 5 Personality trait.

It involves dimensions such as active imagination, aesthetic sensitivity, attentiveness to feelings, preference for variety and intellectual curiosity. People who possess this trait are creative, flexible, curious and adventurous. On the other side, people who score low are said be to be closed to experience. They tend to be traditional and conventional in their outlook and prefer the narrower range of interests.

Taking the concept of “being open” further, society, behaviors, norms, and outlook have opened up especially over the last decade given digital disruption. Internet, opensource software’s and various platforms have ensured that our society becomes broad and inclusive. Current times present a more level playing field by blurring boundaries thus fostering transparency. It’s, therefore, a no brainer that similar aspects of opening, being open and openness can pay rich dividends if applied to leadership principles.

Traditional leadership has been about authority, command, and control. The power center is always at the top. Everybody shadows their level up. The new-age leadership principle counters that approach. Today, it’s about openness, transparency, and meritocracy. Individuals matter, not positions. Influence is a real power that is sans hierarchy. Open-minded leaders even reverse shadow which is shadowing their level down. This is an interesting concept which we shall delve right into.

Corporate workload leaves very little room for managers and leaders for dry runs and rehearsals. It is a live performance from day one and most of the learning is on the job. Given shrinking role tenures and high churn rate, it becomes crucial for leaders to condense work context, understand the nature of the business, comprehend role realities and start delivering as soon as they hit the ground. Reverse shadowing is a great concept where learning curve and absorption time vastly reduces by following and living the role of a colleague who is a level below. The benefits don’t just get restricted to being effective at work but spin-off much further in generating empathy, fostering an environment of trust and collaboration, removing siloed work environment and building bridges across levels. Reverse shadow could also mean a process whereby a junior member may share some of her/his well learnt and hard-fought experiences & insights with senior members, on how to overcome task-related challenges and complete them efficiently.

The startup industry is replete with novel examples where leaders display openness and baggage-free mindset to effectively reverse shadow subordinates’responsibilities to better appreciate performance and output metrics, understand work constraints and thus co-create an atmosphere of respect and trust.

Flipkart has made it mandatory for all top executives including directors to take customer calls like normal customer representatives. Senior leaders compulsorily undertake field trips like a delivery agent. All this to understand customer pulse and operational rigor of the foot soldiers. Business owned families generally induct scions by starting them off in junior levels to experience and get educated on the daily grind at work. Other startups like Jombay has an initiative called “CEO on the floor” where every Tuesday or Wednesday, the CEO joins his team members to get first-hand insight into their innovations and ideas. At Urban Ladder, the leaders sit in team meetings that are chaired by junior employees. This gives a sense to leaders on how functions behave and how they could evolve. At e-pharmacy startup Pharmeasy, leaders have a mandate to spend 3 hours in a week doing something that is non-core to their function.

Often there are good lessons to be learnt if reverse shadowing is done on a consistent basis. Descending one or a few levels down helps leaders see the micro picture. It lifts the blur as hierarchies are bypassed and problems get solved faster with expeditious decision making. It also accelerates innovation as new ideas get discussed directly with leaders and put to test. At the end of the day, it’s a win for all as everyone gets benefitted from this process.

The world around us has changed dramatically and continues to evolve at a blistering pace. As leaders, being mindful of the diversity and complexity of notions will go a long way in being relevant to the role. Openness to constructs hitherto considered operational & non-strategic till yesterday actually carry the seeds of prosperous tomorrow. Reverse Shadow at a fundamental level is timeless. Wisdom teaches us that the strongest gale can uproot tall trees, but the small grass remains untouched. Small is significant and there’s enormous value in leaning on to the lower ranks. Great leaders are hence always humble and do not think twice to buck the normal trend of kiss up and kick down. They respect and learn as much from subordinates as they do from supervisors.

A candle loses nothing by lighting another candle. It doesn’t matter who lights whom. In the case of reverse shadow, it’s just that the smaller candle lights the bigger one.

Let’s reverse the trend then. Time to be open and learn from a level down to go a level up.

Bibliography- London Business School, Forbes, Timothy Judge, Business Insider, Wikipedia, Desk Research on Best Practice.

Note- Views are personal and do not reflect organizations’ POV in any manner. This article is co-authored by Sabhya Soni an L&D professional at Wipro, Bangalore.

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