This post is the fourth in a series that began here summarizing the findings of a one-year study of workforce leadership. Through that process, we identified six practices next-generation leaders use to be effective; a new model of leadership we call WEadership, in a nod to its collaborative nature.

WEadership and the Crowd

The idea that leaders “control” the people, information, and resources within their organizations is no longer plausible if it ever was. Today people use social technologies to connect, share, and collaborate with peers and colleagues who can help them get things done, regardless of position or organizational affiliation.

This shift has created new demands for “transparency” on the part of organizations in public, private, and non-profit sectors alike. Employees, customers, shareholders, citizens, doners, etc. increasingly, all of them want to make the businesses of doing business more transparent, more visible, and ultimately, more accountable.

Leaders can adapt to these changes by opening up the way they listen, share, and engage with employees, customers, and communities to solve important problems.

Openness in the Organization

Many of the 519 leaders in our study reported that the most important thing leaders can do to open up their organizations is listen. It seems simple, but in a media-saturated environment in which customers tweet, employees blog, and people of all kinds have conversations that can be shared with millions in minutes, listening has become complicated. But listening is critical because conversations about your issues are talking place, with or without you. The insights freely available to good listeners can make a business, while ignoring them can make a business irrelevant.

Sharing, too, has taken new forms. Open leaders are discovering the difference between broadcasting and sharing, and finding the latter a more effective approach to building brands, delivering services, and delighting customers. These leaders are:

  • Using social media to host conversations
  • Making complex data accessible, beautiful, and easy to understand
  • Sharing “drafts” of planned changes to products, services, policies, and business models so they can be improved (rather than rolling out a finished product that meets yesterday’s need).

All of these practices speak to a more iterative approach to problem solving and one that involves more than the experts.

Collaborative Networks Within and Across Organizations

The “org chart” may reflect where people in an organization sit, but rarely how they get their work done or the relative value of their contributions to the enterprise. This is more true today, as employees maintain extensive social networks outside of their organizations. Open leaders understand this. They find ways to invite broad participation in problem-solving within and outside of their organizations. For example, leaders in our study reported experimenting with:

  • Social networks that made the knowledge and expertise of individual employees known to everyone;
  • Crowdsourcing platforms that invite people to share ideas, knowledge, and opinions at significant scale; and
  • Convening partners (who might also be competitors) to develop collaborative solutions to common problems;

Sharing Leadership

Open leaders invite others to share leadership responsibility. They understand that leadership is a role, not a title, and that leadership can come from any corner of any organization or community, not just the management tier. For traditional leaders, this is a significant change. But it also represents a tremendous opportunity to engage more people in more meaningful work toward more significant ends.

Leaders, their organizations, their boards, and their communities will all have to find the particular combination of open leadership practices that is right for them.

Openness is a matter of degree, but it is also inevitable.

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Last Week: WEadership Practice #2: Build Diverse Networks

Next Week: WEadership Practice #4: Encourage Experimentation

Kristin Wolff and Vinz Koller, of Social Policy Research Associates, authored the WEadership Guide (August 2011), the result of a one-year US Department of Labor study of leadership in the field of public policy concerned with work and learning. They were thrilled at the opportunity to link their professional pursuits (public policy) with their personal commitments to positive social change and innovation, and look to increase, accelerate, and intensify these connections within the field of workforce in the coming months. The entire project is documented at EnhacingWorkforceLeadership.org. Follow it at @WFLeadership.

Kristin Wolff
Policy wonk and social innovator committed to making people (and their talents) central to economic, community, and workforce development policy and practice; and playing a role in inventing public policy 2.0 at every level. Connect with her on her LeadChange Profile, LinkedIn Profile, Twitter, or Facebook too.
Kristin Wolff