Leaders of tomorrow have to be prepared to deal with the possibilities and the ramifications of human-technology interaction on a daily basis

November 5, 2019

Dr. Malar Hirudayraj is an Associate professor of Human Resource Development in the Saunders College of Business, RIT Rochester. She teaches courses such as Leading Change, Leading Innovation, Organization Development, Social Psychology for Service, Performance Analysis and Development, Workplace Diversity at the graduate level. Malar is interested in the changing nature of work and organizations and its implications for employees and organizations. She mainly study issues of diversity and inclusion and employability, especially that of disadvantaged populations.

Aside from the academic life, Malar is an avid sports enthusiast, a passionate follower of the Barcelona brand of football (soccer, not American football!) and a die-hard admirer of Lionel Messi.

Dr. Hirudayaraj is one of the professors from the main campus teaching in the MS Service Leadership and Innovation program at our Zagreb campus, and this past summer she talked to our students about leadership and leading change. We used that opportunity to talk about this interesting topic.

Q: Leadership approaches and theories say that as much as leadership is linked to traits and characteristics of a leader, it can also be learned. Is there an approach or theory that you are fond of and would suggest our readers to look into? Which leadership literature would you suggest they read?

Dr. Hirudayaraj: I prefer leadership theories/approaches that take into consideration the challenges of in the workplaces of the 21st century and the work itself. Most importantly, I look for leadership theories that address the complexity and ambiguity prevalent in today's workplaces. In addition, it is important for me that the theory/approach is responsive to the changes in employee demographics, organizational structure and functioning, pace and breadth of technological change, and socio economic and cultural context.

Adaptive leadership theory is one that takes into account the complexity of the context and the changes that need to be dealt with. However, I wouldn't say it is responsive to socio cultural contexts to the extent that I expect. Practitioners need to keep in touch with research on leadership in the current context. They could read Harvard Business Review regularly and also updates and reports in the local media.

Q: Rapid technological development brought about changes that are not only a constant, but are disrupting whole industries (e.g. Uber, Airbnb). Which challenges do leaders face with regards to the ever changing environment and how should they respond?

Dr. Hirudayaraj: Leaders today and in the future have to deal with issues such as pace of change; having to keep ahead of the pack in terms of technology and business strategy; changing demographics of employees; being intentionally inclusive and fair; dealing with issues that arise out of workforce that is dispersed worldwide; decentralizing everyday operations yet reinforcing a unifying vision, mission, and values; maintaining a evolving demands of customers and their social consciousness; balancing customer, employee, and shareholders expectations; leading from a values  perspective; equipping employees and educating customers and shareholders to deal with constant change; complexity of the work itself; socio political ambiguity; frequent market fluctuations...the list as you can see is pretty long!

Speaking of companies such as Uber & Airbnb... that have radically disrupted the way business is conducted in their industry are redefining the concept of an organization and the concept of work or employment itself. From a HR perspective the way business is structured and services are delivered have ushered in a whole new range of opportunities for employment but at the same time have reduced the levels of safety net available for employees. The precariousness of gig work demands redefining of policies and systems. In addition to all the issues leaders of tomorrow have to deal with leaders in service organizations such as these that run on reviews of customers, also have to pay extra attention to safety and security issues that arise as a result of the very nature of their business and could threaten their very existence.

But, most importantly, leaders of tomorrow have to be prepared to deal with the possibilities and the ramifications of human-technology interaction on a daily basis.

Q: Alongside the changes, the technology has enabled the rise of start-ups. We are witnessing a lot of business ideas being turned into businesses which means that entrepreneurs become leaders as well. We can presume that the newly business people and entrepreneurs did not necessarily study leadership and need to lead their teams. Any advice for them?

Dr. Hirudayaraj: Current and potential entrepreneurs have to recognize and acknowledge that they are and will be dealing with people fundamentally. The organizations small or big will function on paradigms that have not been identified yet. Therefore, regardless of their innovative ability and technical foresight, entrepreneurs also need to prepare themselves to lead in complex situations that are constantly evolving.

There are multiple ways to do that though. In this day and age information is available readily at the tip of their fingers, but information that is available online might not be sufficient. It is important for entrepreneurs also to engage in discussions, learn from peers across the globe through formal and informal forums. The Service Leadership and Innovation program offers an ideal platform for entrepreneurs as well. Here, they can learn specifically about leading change and innovation in addition to a plethora of other relevant topics.

Q: Another challenge for modern leadership reflects in a growing freelancing. What is your opinion on that and from a leadership perspective, what is more difficult: leading people employed or outsourced by the organization a leader works for?

Dr. Hirudayaraj: Both have their share of challenges. However, I would say, leading people that are not full time employees or 'outsourced' employees as you call them is more difficult because there are no set pathways, theories, approaches or even paradigms that may fit a particular leader- employee/s relationship in such a context to learn from, follow, or adopt. In these situations, one may have to evolve her/his own paradigms depending on the context and nature of the relationship and the job. In that sense, I see leading outsourced employees as being more complex at least in the next decade until this becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Q: Finally, like every generation, Millennials are bringing in something of their own and leaving their mark. They are concerned with making a difference in this world, they like to lead, are not afraid to speak up, they communicate in different ways (social media). Can you share your thoughts on Millennials as leaders or perhaps as followers (what companies are more concerned with nowadays)?

Dr. Hirudayaraj: Every generation is a reflection of its times, and therefore brings with it certain values, attitudes, expectations, and behavior patterns and communication preferences into the workplace. Millennials are just another generation. The problem is twofold. One they are different in many aspects from the previous generations; two, in the current context more than ever at least five generations with varied priorities, expectations, behavior patterns, and communication preferences are in the workplace simultaneously.

Getting all generations to work together effectively and also keeping everyone happy and satisfied is not easy! The challenge is in teaching the older generations to understand and work with the millennials as much as equipping the millennials to work with co-workers who resemble their parents, uncles, aunts, and even grandparents! In my experience, what most companies do not do very well is the preparation part. Second, any understanding should be reinforced by policies, systems, and practices that reflect the preparedness to accommodate multiple generations. Leaders have the responsibility of creating and maintaining a culture that is flexible and adaptive and prioritizing systems and every day practices that enable a smooth and purposeful co-existence of multiple generations. Prioritizing the cultural and systemic adaptions requires resources. Most organizations fail to allocate time, money, and manpower to realize these priorities, but expect the magic to happen on its own. Leaders of tomorrow have to be intentional and also have to follow up with action to make multiple generations to work effectively and happily within their organizations.

Learn more about RIT's Service Leadership and Innovation program! Contact us at ms@croatia.rit.edu.




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