Eva Sage-Gavin: Leading in times of disruption

Imagine we’re sitting in your office, talking, leader to leader. I ask you if you can identify your company’s employee “supergroup.” Would you be able to, broadly? Would you know what I was asking?

If so, you’re in a select group of C-suite leaders. Many leaders I speak with clearly say their company is in the middle of disruption from shareholder activism, technology impacts, consumer expectations, competitive threats and more. But when I ask them if they’re harnessing their supergroup of select employees to help turn that disruption into opportunity, it gives them pause.

We call this supergroup Pathfinders. They are not just the people who work for your organization (51%), but also include your customers (49%). But let’s focus on the workforce side of it. You can engage Pathfinders’ energy and talents to help move your company forward. But if they’re not engaged in helping your organization’s cause, they have equal power to topple it. That’s why we call them a supergroup–they’re powerful stakeholders with high influence. Based on global research–interviews with 200 C-suite executives and a survey of more than 11,000 employees and consumers–Pathfinders exist in every company, regardless of geography or industry. But some companies excel at working with them.

Accenture Strategy, Striking Balance with Whole-Brain Leadership

Partnering with Pathfinders has always been key to success, but as leaders, we know that in times of disruption, the stakes are multiplied. Engaging these employees is critical because they are at least two times more likely to be on the fast track to leadership and possess critical skills. They also come with very clear, and very different, expectations of leadership than those that employees have traditionally held. Currently, in most companies, a gap exists between what the C-suite feels is important for leadership and the leadership standard Pathfinders demand. Pathfinders are looking for leaders to excel not only in traditional left-brained skills like results orientation and data analysis, but also in the right-brained skills so essential to truly human leadership–skills like creative thinking, empathy and self-awareness. Leaders who bring this more whole-brain approach to their companies maximize their chances of lighting up Pathfinders in the very best way: harnessing their energy to help further a shared purpose.

I know you’ll be tempted to think of these employees in generational terms, but you shouldn’t, because they defy those expectations. Pathfinders are spread evenly across generations and gender.

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To me, Pathfinders can represent hope. They are independent thinkers who will align to a cause they believe in–and they’ll keep their leaders true to that cause. Some companies see that so clearly that they’ve built a hiring system that is Pathfinder-friendly. Mark Levy, an employee experience advisor, has worked for a few of these companies. He pioneered the role of chief employee experience officer at Airbnb and Allbirds, as a former chief talent officer, and was a colleague of mine during my Gap, Inc. days. Mark talks about how Airbnb leaders not only interviewed job candidates for technical and functional skills, but also for shared core values. These core values served as behavioral anchors for the company employees and created their incredible culture of belonging. Core-value interviewers, from functions outside of the area a candidate interviewed for, did not see a person’s résumé during an interview; that was handled separately. Rather, they had a values-centered conversation to see if the candidate wanted to join the company for the right reason–to bring the mission to life and further company values. The company was looking to keep out mercenaries, in favor of missionaries.

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So much of what we read about disruption today is negative. I believe there are paths forward that can turn disruption, dissent and destruction into positive forces of change and opportunity. Pathfinders are key to solving that equation for your company–they solve paradoxes without thinking twice about it when they’re on board with your cause.

Now, let’s go back to where we began–our imagined conversation in your office. Let me ask you again: “Do you know who your Pathfinders are? And are you engaging their energy and passion to move through disruption and into a future they help create?” I am sure after knowing more about what makes a Pathfinder, you can already start to name some of them.

I envision a future in which those questions won’t be difficult to answer. It’s a future our Pathfinders are already helping to create. Here’s to all of us embracing whole-brain leadership as we work with our people to not only do the right thing, but to make doing the right thing and commercial success synonymous.


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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected].