The Future Of Work Is Now – How FLEXLead Shapes Employee Experience

Liane Hornsey

6m read

March 18

As leaders, we cannot ignore the fact that employees have lives outside of work or rushing through the opportunities we have for connection that is so valued, and so badly needed between humans.

During the pandemic, leaders have been required to reinforce and emphasize compassionate, authentic leadership. We’ve had to demonstrate heightened sensitivity rooted in a genuine desire to listen and provide more frequent, thoughtful feedback and support. Compassionate leadership creates an environment of belonging, safety, and stability for every employee. This genuine care is more essential now than ever, and I don’t think it can be faked.

Mckinsey’s June 2020 article, COVID-19 and the employee experience: How leaders can seize the moment highlights the importance of creating an environment of stability, trust, contribution/ personalization, and belonging. My own experiences underline these findings every day. This has been a tough time for many People Officers. We have needed to support leaders, help them manage unprecedented change, and enable them to rise beyond their previous leadership capability during an incredibly trying time of unknowns, constant uncertainty, and unending ambiguity for multitudes of employees. This has not been an easy transition for many as it requires us all to think about leadership intentionally and centrally. Our personal tasks have needed to take a back seat as we transition ourselves, our teams, and employees to a new model as we exit the pandemic.

At Palo Alto Networks (PANW), we’ve created FLEXLead, a leadership framework focused on leaders’ ability to strategize, mobilize, and deliver. This has supported us in our aim to provide a consistent employee experience based on both clarity of expectation and our values. None of the elements of this framework are revolutionary, none will make you think, “gosh that’s new”. You will have seen them all before (or something akin) but that’s the point: compassionate leadership is not a fad. It’s not a set of new slogans. Rather, it’s intentional, has to be practiced, and must be front and center in our evaluation of our leaders. At PANW we expect every leader to care for their teams, and to:

1. Set high expectations – everyone needs to feel they have achieved
2. Be authentic – we can all intuit genuine engagement
3. Balance coaching and captaining – during uncertain times captains step in
4. Lead with empathy – not with our own agendas
5. Listen and learn – yes learn – stop thinking we have to pretend we know it all
6. Build trust -it is the hallmark of sustainable high performance – its slow to develop, breaks easily but is essential for a solid foundation
7. Raise one’s own bar – and when we fail, admit it – we’re fallible too

We have to be ready to revolutionize the way our employees work and be intentional about truly building trust and empathy.

As I said I’m sure none of these are likely a surprise to you, the pivot though has been modeling these qualities based on a foundation of business sense and empathy. As leaders, we cannot ignore the fact that employees have lives outside of work and the blurred lines between the two during the pandemic have made each day harder. We also must remain mindful that now is not the time to rush through the opportunities we have for connection that is so valued, and so needed between humans. If your organization is using leadership expectations of a decade ago or more, I can predict that your engagement scores, retention, and employer brand reflect this; the root cause may very likely be lack of connectedness.

In a true desire to offer the best workplace, our employees have ever been part of, PANW has been on this journey of leadership accountability for some time. Are we moving faster than we ever imagined? YES! Is it work that inspires us? YES! Could we have been where we are today had we started when the pandemic kicked off? MAYBE.

The cycles of change we have each experienced combined with the pain of loss that has touched us all in some way has made it essential to lead while being deeply human. Vulnerability, connection and interest in others is what has pulled us up when it has been hard, helped us celebrate the moments we can, and taught us to listen for what is not being said as much as what is. Every pause, head-in-hands moment, and explosion of nervous laughter means so much more and has taught us to listen, learn, improve, and consider every decision much more deeply.

I’ve heard a lot about the future of work and what it may become over my career. It was the 2020 buzz; but let’s be clear that future is now. We have to be ready to revolutionize the way our employees work and be intentional about truly building trust and empathy. We have to believe this is the optimal route forward for our employees, ourselves and our organizations.

I have learned many things over the last year, but mostly I have really internalized what of course I already knew … that every employee is different … I mean really different — no, I’m not just saying it, but I am trying to listen and respond individually. What does this mean for how we organize and lead the people function? If we want to start with each employee then it’s a root and branch change, as we will need to stop treating our teams and employees solely as cohorts and rather spend our time adapting our approaches to the needs of each person. This “aha moment” has led the people team at PANW to build individualized benefits, to amp up choice over where work is completed, and to offer personalized, individualized learning. It’s not easy, but I am so excited by the potential of deeply changing the nature of work.

One thing I know … it’s that this is the moment for transition. Now is the time to encourage and celebrate employees as individuals with specific needs, desires, and challenges. Of course, we cannot expect our leaders to cultivate this if they can’t feel it first for themselves. People and Learning Officers now should prioritize supporting our leaders and building individualized processes — well that seems to me to be at the heart of our job going forward.