When I think about questions like this, I usually draw parallels to other areas. I’ve always been involved in sales. Based on my experience, I’ve learned that if I need to get 100 new customers for a newly established business, I need to get these customers myself. In sales and marketing, it is common to talk about inbound and outbound. Simplified somewhat, outbound means that the sales process is started on the salesperson’s initiative: the salesperson actively does prospecting for a specific account. Inbound is the opposite: the sales process is started on the customer’s initiative. In most cases, specifically in newly established businesses, most customers come through outbound activities. When the business grows and gains a reputation and a stronger brand, an increasing number of customers find their way to the business. I am sure there is a classic 80/20 Pareto principle for this .
We can also draw parallels between this and leadership, and therefore discuss inbound and outbound leadership. In outbound leadership, the initiative comes from the leader; and in inbound leadership, the initiative comes from the team member.
Can we afford to base our leadership practices solely on inbound initiatives?
Why is this a relevant question? Work-life is changing in many ways at the moment. Our conversations, both online and offline, are filled with themes like hybrid work, self-organization, self-leadership, workforce shortages, and leaderless organizations.
A workforce shortage implies that power is transferred from the employer to the employee. Back in the old days, we were happy to have a job. Nowadays, the fact that we’re able to recruit someone with specific skills to our organization makes us happy.
Simultaneously, many organizations are willing to transfer an increasing number of leadership-related activities to team members. The individual can, for example, decide when they would like to have a performance review or a one-on-one discussion and “order” this service by themselves. This is a typical example of inbound leadership.
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Initially, this phenomenon seems to make sense, as it is based on the idea that each team member has their individual needs. However, can we base all our leadership on inbound activities?
In 2020, 25% of team members felt that they got less support from their leaders
Based on research carried out in 2020 by the Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland, 24% of the respondents felt that they got less support from their leaders. During this year, many leaders faced a totally new situation when many organizations switched over to working remotely. Today, it seems we are not going back to the same work life that was common in pre-Covid times. Therefore, the new work life that we are going into emphasizes the need for even clearer leadership structures and routines.
Simultaneously, many organizations are contemplating whether they should abolish leadership as a function, at least to some degree. In some cases, this means reducing the number of leaders and specifically middle management; in others, it involves only changing titles.
In my opinion, this is not a binary “black or white” question:
- Even if an organization has fewer leaders, this usually does not remove the need for leadership. Individuals have a need to be seen and heard, and to get relevant sparring and feedback. If we do not want to talk about leaders or managers, we can, for example, use the term “coach” or similar.
- Having a self-organized workplace does not mean that there is no need for structures for leadership. For example, instead of an individual ordering a one-on-one discussion when needed, we can agree that everyone should have at least one discussion per quarter, but the individual can decide which “coach” they are going to have this discussion with.
In my opinion, leadership is a service that can create a significant competitive advantage. I believe that every organization needs a mix of inbound and outbound leadership activities. Some of these activities can be compulsory and others voluntary. The types of services and how they are organized should be defined together with the users of the services, and they should serve the intended company culture.
At this moment, we specifically need outbound leadership. One example of this is agreeing that everyone should have a one-on-one session in a specific time frame, what the purpose and context of the discussion should be, and what metrics are to be used to monitor and follow up on the discussions. This creates an example of a clear leadership structure that ensures that an individual gets recognized and heard, and feels part of a community, even if they are not physically present.