How Charlotte business leaders can aim for 'better' instead of 'business as usual' in 2021

Thursday, January 28, 2021

As we bid 2020 farewell and settle into 2021, there are a lot of questions on the minds of Charlotteans, and one of the biggest questions is “when will things go back to normal?”

Dr. Janaki Gooty and Dr. George Banks, are sharing why we should be aiming for “better” instead of just “business as usual” for this year and beyond.

unc charlotte professors Dr. Gooty and Dr. Banks

Dr. Janaki Gooty (left) and Dr. George Banks.

The piece, co-written by Dr. Gooty and Dr. Banks, was first published by Axios Charlotte. The views expressed are their own.

We are living through history in the making. The events of this past year will be the subject of study for years to come.

As many leaders in Charlotte and across the globe agree, it has been the toughest year of our lifetimes. As we’ve witnessed, crossing to the new calendar year doesn’t automatically end the challenges. The good news: Research can help business leaders steer toward a better 2021.

As research faculty with UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business, we are more energized than ever to find actionable solutions for businesses. As Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce says, “The business of business is improving the state of the world.”

We agree. So, we’ve designed research to produce applicable results that can support a better way forward, helping drive the next generation of diverse leaders. Recent discoveries suggest three key pillars:

  • Leaders – Those who not only say the right thing, but engage in visible, ethical behavior.
  • Lessons – COVID-19 helped us understand a lot about how everyday leaders across the Queen City metro area think, feel and act when faced with giant crises.
  • Layout – What we call the “Future of Leadership” is driven by machine learning, data science and robust experiments. It has important implications for all layers of business, from diversity, equity and inclusion to financial performance and more.

The bottom line is that leaders can be trained to develop skill sets necessary to create positive influence.

A few cool things we’re discovering

For one, women and men sometimes lead differently, and both are needed in the workplace. Many think leaders who express feelings are weak. However, we have learned male and female leaders can channel their emotions into powerful motivators.

Other findings are helping uncover opportunities for organizational improvements. As one application example, who wants yet another mundane company survey? You know what we’re talking about, the ones that only seem to produce limited organizational change. We now have better options. Data science and machine learning are helping us measure actual human behavior with (here’s the best part) less implicit biases.

So now more than ever before, we can teach people how to act ethically.

Applying our research

As our MBA students learn in their graduate courses, management is an applied science. As an example, our research has uncovered actionable leadership behaviors. We routinely challenge our MBA students to apply our discoveries at work to help make a positive impact in Charlotte businesses. Now, to help us emerge into a stronger 2021, we’re challenging you as well to translate some of our scientific ideas into practice at work.

(1) Engage in sensemaking

One of our studies this past year looked at how leaders in the Charlotte region survived during COVID challenges. One cool thing we found is that our leaders are human. They felt real feelings, thought a lot, baked, were Zoomed in and Zoomed out just like all of us.

Why is this important? Because the more we cast our leaders as superheroes, the more we set up impossible ideals for those aspiring to such positions. Another cool finding was that leaders on the whole sought meaning in what was happening and then proceeded to create meaning for their followers.

We encourage you to create meaning and organize a coherent narrative and sense for your teams. Frame what is happening against a larger context, use language and labels that are familiar for what your team is experiencing, and use appropriate metaphors to focus attention. For example, a leader who says “the ship is sinking” is signaling despair and defeat versus one who says, “Please fasten your seat belts, we are experiencing temporary turbulence” and signals that the tough times will pass.

(2) Elevate others’ voices

Leaders who are in high-power positions have a tremendous opportunity to seek out and promote the voice of others. This includes creating space for others to communicate their ideas. For instance, imagine you’re in a Zoom meeting, and someone has not yet had the chance to speak. You can enable their voice by asking for their thoughts on a matter. In a world where inequality is still prevalent (and the current virtual environment often exacerbates inequality), these leadership actions can serve a critical role in supporting those in historically underrepresented groups in leadership positions.

(3) Engage in “costly” behaviors

Talk is cheap. Action, on the other hand, especially when it is considered and deliberate, is prized by those looking for direction. Despite the virtual work environment that lacks the nuance of face-to-face interaction, leaders can signal what is important via action. Our findings indicate such costly action – by that we mean leaders who have to exert effort in acting, not simply talking – impacts your followers in positive ways. So what’s costly? One example could be an action that may be frowned upon by some colleagues in your organization, but you do it anyway as you are signaling what values are important.

For instance, a colleague is told they are wasting time with new ideas and/or questions. You interject and ask that colleague to elaborate. You just signaled to your team that you walked the talk about valuing all voices on the team. Or one participant in our study told us they sent masks, hand sanitizers and pizza to their team at the beginning of lockdown as a way of signaling that they value employee health and well-being.

Lead with impact

As research faculty, we are committed to the expansion of applicable knowledge as one way of driving business. We teach our MBA students to take our findings, apply it in their jobs, and lead from a place of informed acuity (in other words, apply our research findings). And now we ask you as well: Help our city recover by focusing on your sphere of influence and lead with impact.

Together, rather than going “back to normal,” we can move Charlotte forward to a better 2021.

George Banks and Janaki Gooty are associate professors of management in UNC Charlotte’s Belk College of Business. They teach courses in UNC Charlotte’s nationally ranked MBA program, which is celebrating 50 years of driving business in Charlotte this year.