5 Leadership Trends to Embrace Now to Prepare for 2022

Kerry Siggins

Kerry Siggins

Kerry Siggins is the CEO of StoneAge, a global leader of high-pressure waterblast cleaning equipment. She was one of Colorado’s Top 25 Most Influential Young Professionals and was a finalist for Colorado’s CEO of the Year.

As we approach the end of 2021, it’s time to reflect upon just how hard the pandemic rocked the business world. Some leaders are embracing change, inspired to grow their businesses in a new way. Others are being forced into a different way of thinking and acting, desperately hoping that things will get back to normal. Whatever that is.

But we are never going back to normal, and nor should we want to. Society faces unprecedented challenges as we grapple with inequality, climate change, crumbling health care systems and supply chains, labor shortages, the advancement of technology such as AI and polarized political systems. The weight of these challenges can feel both crushing and motivating at the same time. And it’s time for leaders to look in the mirror and admit that the way we’ve been doing things isn’t working. We’ve got to change how we run our businesses, how we treat our people and how we impact the planet.

If you want to be a leader at the forefront of change, the time is now to embrace a new way of leading. It’s time to buck the old system and forge new trends, new cultures and new companies.

As a disruptive executive for a decade and a half, I’ve learned how to lean into the pushback you get when you challenge the status quo. Leading an employee-owned company, I’ve experienced how simple it is to put your people first. And managing the transformation from a tool manufacturing company to a technology company, I’ve figured out how to overcome setbacks and misfires, persevering to bring a vision to reality. And you can do it as well, by embracing these five leadership trends in 2022.

1. Creating a culture of well-being

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), depression causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays annually and costs employers somewhere between $17 billion and $44 billion. This is staggering.

Leaders of the future are paying attention. As we head into 2022, we must create cultures where employee well-being comes first. Change like this starts at the top, and leaders must set an example. Every person on a company’s executive team must be committed to workplace well-being, modeling a holistic lifestyle where top priorities are physical, emotional, mental and spiritual health. The days of work, work and more work are over. People are craving more balance and wellness in life, and leaders who ignore or resist addressing it will be left behind.

Second, leaders must build a supportive environment that focuses on the whole person, not just the working portion. A supportive environment offers resources for depression and other mental health issues and incentives for exercise and healthy eating behaviors. Companies must offer EAP services that address mental health and financial, spiritual and social well-being. Creating a supportive environment requires an investment in training. Training on how to create psychological safety where employees feel safe to talk about their well-being. Training on how to be more empathetic and when to recognize that an employee is struggling. Training on how to talk about challenging issues. Training on how to live a healthier lifestyle. 

And finally, keep the lines of communication consistent and open. Improving and sustaining well-being is a process. Sometimes there are two steps back for every step forward. The best way to help employees stay on track is to discuss their progress and setbacks openly. Leaders should regularly check in with their employees to see how things are going and have meaningful conversations about well-being every week.

2. Investing in your employees’ development

A study published in 2013 by researchers at Oxford University estimates that just under 50 percent of the U.S.’s total employment has a high risk of automation over the following two decades. No wonder there is so much fear around the future of work. We don’t understand what this means for our careers and livelihood. It’s unsettling not to understand what future jobs will look like. That’s why leaders must embrace upskilling their workforce.

Leaders can start by mapping out a learning and development program focused on learning new technologies and software, advancing job-specific knowledge and skills and teaching effective management and leadership techniques, including power skills such as empathy, listening, problem-solving and communication. Effective upskilling programs include job rotation — the practice of moving employees between jobs and job enlargement — adding new tasks and responsibilities to an employee’s job. Finally, consider investing in coaching and mentoring activities. At my firm, we use outside coaches to help upskill key employees and the results have been outstanding, although challenging to scale. Peer-to-peer coaching and mentoring are also highly effective, if you provide structure and set expectations.

3. Addressing inequality within your culture

According to Gallup’s recent report, Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures, “76 percent of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, and 28 percent say they are burned out ‘very often’ or ‘always’ at work.” And the top factor causing burnout? Unfair treatment at work.

Leaders have the responsibility to ensure that the workplace is as fair and equitable as possible. It isn’t easy to know where to get started, and I suggest you start with pay. Complete a full assessment of employee compensation, looking at it from all angles such as gender, role and the gap between individual contributors, mid-level managers and executive leadership. Then address the inequalities. There is no reason a CEO should make 350 times more than that of the typical worker or that the sole purpose of your company is to maximize value for its shareholders. These are some reasons we find ourselves in this situation of staggering inequality and deep distrust of our leaders.

Unless, of course, you are an employee-owned company, like we are. Our goal is to maximize value for our shareholders, and that’s because our shareholders are our employees. Our goal is to create value and wealth for all our employees, not just a few lucky enough to be at the top. More companies should embrace this philosophy.

Other ways to tackle inequality in the workplace? Invest in bias training that focuses on experience sharing and teaching intersectionality. Create safe spaces for under-represented people to access support and give them a platform to share their stories. Review and revamp your hiring practices to source more intentionally, looking beyond the homogeneous networks so you can tap more diverse candidate pools. Conduct panel interviews to allow for various perspectives. Use a structured interview process, including a scorecard, so every candidate is asked the same questions in the same order and ranked on ability and competency rather than general, highly-biased statements such as, I like them. They seem to be a good fit. Finally, terminate employees who don’t fit your values of diversity, inclusion and equality. What you tolerate becomes what’s accepted and expected.  

4. Building your technology infrastructure

I love Seth Godin’s recent blog post on shifting your tech time horizon. “Ten years ago, if you were as good at using networks and software as you are today, most of your peers would have considered you some sort of wizard. The question isn’t whether or not each of us is going to get better at using our tools, the only issue is: how soon?”

There is no doubt that the future is built on technology and the vast majority of companies and governments are not ready for what’s to come. Tradeoffs will have to be made, such as investing in your company’s infrastructure rather than growth. But what good is growth is if it’s not sustainable and if you aren’t agile enough to change when the next crisis or disruption hits?

There is no time like the present to invest in your technology infrastructure. Sit down with your leadership team and scenario plan. What technology do we know we need now? What might we need in the future? How do we build an agile system that can change as we change? Then create the roadmap. Without a roadmap, it won’t be easy to get where you want to go. Outline priorities, investments and talent requirements. Then create simple use cases for your top priorities or low-hanging fruit. 

5. Embracing an experimenter’s mindset

There is no doubt that more disruption lies ahead; it’s the new norm. What you did yesterday will most likely not work tomorrow. Yes, it can change that fast, just as we experienced in March 2020. To be future-ready, you must be willing to try new things, to experiment.

At our company, we are experimenting in all facets of our organization: product development, customer success, digital customer experiences and employee training and education. We have banned the words, we are the expert, and are teaching people how to embrace the learner’s mind and not fear failure. Possessing a learner’s mind does not mean taking significant risks; in fact, I encourage you to use a disciplined method of experimentation. How do we do it? We create a simple two-page case study outlining the pros, cons and potential outcomes. We create boundaries around our experiments, following Jim Collin’s eloquently put advice, “fire bullets, then cannonballs.” We also break large initiatives into bite-sized chunks to create quick wins that infatuate our customers, delight our employees and maximize our flexibility as we transform our company and develop the capacity to handle what comes next.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. In fact, the more you get used to adapting, learning, growing and pivoting, the better off you’ll be. Economic instability will be a factor for some time to come, and embracing an experimenter’s mindset will help you stay ahead of the curve.

Now is the time to embrace these leadership trends. There are so many opportunities to be had in this time of great disruption. Be prepared for what will come next and create an organization that changes the lives of your employees, customers and the world.