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“If you don’t have a strategy, you’re part of someone else’s strategy.” That’s what futurist Alvin Toffler once said about the need to adapt to the rolling waves of change. Toffler saw change on the horizon and a movement toward a new type of society that challenged old assumptions. What he said next could not be more relevant for leaders today:
“The illiterate of the 21st century won’t be those who don’t know how to read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
The greatest challenge coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic may not be overcoming supply chain or labor tests. Or even making the operational changes necessary for survival.
As business owners, the greatest challenge will be relearning how to lead.
Nature of Leadership is Changing
As we rise from the ashes of the pandemic and begin to dream for the future, it begs the question: Are there leadership qualities we’ve relied on in the past that we need to unlearn?
We asked more than 200 distributors that question in a recent survey for our research, “Reimagining Leadership,” and many of the responses fell into the category of throwing out the old notion of hierarchy and tight controls (leadership.futureofdistribution.com).
Sixty-five percent of survey respondents believe leaders must unlearn some qualities that led to their success in the past, both individually and organizationally.
Employees want something different today. Leaders must balance purpose with profits and recognize that unilateral decision-making with no input will no longer fly. The pandemic has fast-tracked this evolution in leadership. Seventy-seven percent of distributors in our research agreed the very nature of leadership is changing as a result of COVID-19 and other disruptive forces.
“We’ve seen a shift in what people want in a workplace,” Chris Blaylock, a partner in the accounting and consulting firm Wipfli, told me. “The leaders who have been successful are those who were engaged differently. They have a personal relationship. They walk down the floor. They have a first-name-basis conversation. They know their team’s family members. Those who invested in their people this way have succeeded because their employees feel as if they are valued, and that value means something right now.”
Attracting, Retaining Good People is Critical to Success
Yet, as much as distributors agree that leadership must adapt, our research shows a 41-percentage point gap from where distributors are now (managing rather than leading) to where they think leaders should be in five years — noble leadership. Noble leaders focus on care, support and guidance of employees to bring out their best.
Here is why it is important.
The future of distribution will be built on your ability to attract and retain people and lead them into tomorrow.
First Supply, a Wisconsin-based plumbing and HVACR supplies distributor featured in the latest season of our We Supply America docuseries, has embraced this idea. Nate Rubner’s story is telling of the future of distribution. After generations of being told and sold he would need a college education to have a chance at success in corporate America, First Supply obliterated that “truism.”
Rubner joined First Supply as a 19-year-old working in the warehouse as an order filler. If the truism were actually true, he’d still be doing that work today. Instead, he is a regional operations manager.
He is thriving and, more importantly, helping his team thrive: “I want to make a difference. I want to invest as much as I can. I want to be the best version of myself.”
Businesses have been disrupted. People’s needs and wants have shifted. Our people have been through so much these last several years; they want more than a paycheck. Like Rubner, they want meaning in their work.
They want to know they matter.
As one survey respondent said: “Employees are no longer wanting to be viewed as worker bees.”
What Needs to Change?
Our landmark research study asked distributors to offer insights about the changing tides of business and to share examples of leadership qualities that won’t serve them going forward.
Other responses included:
40-hour week in the office;
Thinking activity = productivity;
Money as the only motivator;
Tenure as a reason to tap a leader;
Requiring people to be in the office to do their jobs;
Excluding other team members’ input;
A bold statement made several years ago says it best: “I have to prepare these kids for their world, not the world I lived in.”
Those were the words of George Kennedy, former head swim coach for John Hopkins University. He was a speaker at one of my UnleashWD Innovation Summits. He explained his student-athletes were not the same student-athletes of 10, 20 or 30 years ago. Because of this, he needed to adapt his leadership style to meet those changing needs.
He may have best captured how we must redefine leadership for the future: Now is our opportunity to prepare our businesses and our people for the world we live in today — not the world from which we came.
We learned in our research that businesses must be about more than moving goods. We must provide a platform for our people’s personal and professional growth to set them up for success both today and tomorrow. Leadership must be redefined and reimagined.
“The pandemic has redefined how people view work. People work because they need to, not because they have to. People work for the benefits it provides them, not for the benefits it provides the company. People work because they want to be part of something that enables their life aspirations.” — survey respondent.
Dirk Beveridge is the founder of UnleashWD, executive producer at We Supply America, president of the Beveridge Consulting Group and champion of the noble calling of distribution for more than 36 years. His one-of-a-kind perspective on the future of wholesale distribution has guided his mission to advance the growth, relevance and transformation of the industry, helping distributors thrive. Learn more about Dirk by visiting www.unleashwd.com.
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