Rapid technological advances, continued economic uncertainty, shifting consumer behaviors, political polarization, and the erosion of trust in institutions and leaders make it more difficult than ever for economic development organizations (EDOs) to drive growth and create competitive advantages. By harnessing the power of inclusivity, connected leadership can help EDOs best position their organizations and their communities for success—both today and tomorrow.
What is connected leadership, and why is it needed now?
Connected leadership is a management style that emphasizes forging strong relationships, fostering collaboration, and creating a sense of community among stakeholders, partners, and team members. Unlike the command-and-control mindset that relies on a strict hierarchy and a top-down management approach, connected leadership embraces inclusivity, values authenticity, and prioritizes shared decision-making. Key attributes of connected leaders include empathy, active listening, effective communication, and trust building. At its core, connected leadership focuses on nurturing a cohesive and sustainable ecosystem where diverse individuals work together to identify shared values, make progress toward common goals, and prepare an organization to thrive as new challenges and opportunities emerge.
The shift to a more agile and flexible leadership paradigm was dramatically accelerated by recent events, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic and social upheaval. One area where this shift has been most pronounced is the employer-employee relationship. In addition to precipitating a hyper-competitive hiring environment, the pandemic changed the thinking of many employers about where, how, and when work gets done. For employees, the pandemic brought the issue of work-life balance into sharp relief. Those who had the option were no longer willing to commit “110 percent” to their jobs, often working through illness and sacrificing time with loved ones to meet employer demands. Zoom calls gave co-workers and managers a peek into each other’s lives. Hearing dogs bark, seeing parents holding babies, or catching a glimpse of an untidy bookshelf in the background brought a human dimension that had been missing in the workplace.
A more connected leadership style is also a response to the increasing fragmentation of the social network. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the social fabric in many communities had been tested by political divisions, cultural issues, and equity challenges. This fraying of the relationships and connections that allow a society to function has significant consequences, among them the fact that it makes it significantly harder to get anything done. This impact is particularly evident in economic development which often seeks transformative solutions to large-scale, multi-disciplinary issues that cut across the economy.
How can connected leadership help EDOs foster an inclusive workplace culture?
Forming an inclusive organizational culture through connected leadership can have far-reaching benefits. By prioritizing inclusion, EDOs stand to leverage the collective intelligence and expertise of a diverse group of individuals, leading to heightened creativity, problem-solving capabilities, and adaptability. Connected leaders understand that inclusivity gives their organizations competitive advantages, including improved performance and productivity. An inclusive organizational culture makes it easier for EDOs to attract, grow, and retain top talent and to ensure they are tapping into staff’s full potential. The basic tenets of connected leadership can help foster high-performing, resilient, and future-ready EDOs equipped to carry out their missions effectively and efficiently.
- Empower people. Where power was once derived from a title, in today’s flatter organizations, it comes from relationships and connections. Leadership is no longer just about setting expectations and directing others to meet them. Today’s future-ready leaders seek to empower employees to make decisions and to contribute their unique perspectives. By encouraging more autonomy, connected leaders help advance a culture of inclusion and collaboration that can break down silos, facilitate information sharing, and spur innovation that will benefit the communities in which EDOs work.
- Be transparent. Along with autonomy and empowerment, connected leadership promotes an inclusive organizational culture through transparency. EDOs that involve their employees in decision-making processes and recognize staff contributions will help generate the buy-in needed to execute initiatives and programs successfully. Inclusion through workplace transparency serves to boost morale, reduce turnover rates, and better position EDOs to attract top talent.
- Stay agile. In today’s rapidly changing world, agility is also crucial to organizational resiliency. Connected leadership enables EDOs to respond quickly and effectively to shifting market dynamics. Nurturing an inclusive culture that embraces innovation and continuous learning throughout an organization produces a heightened ability to adapt to new challenges and capitalize on emerging opportunities. This flexibility allows EDOs to navigate economic disruptions, attract investment, and cultivate an environment conducive to growth.
- Create balance. Connected leaders understand the importance of promoting balance and leading with compassion. Fear-based leadership styles are being replaced with approaches that prioritize empathy and purpose. By fostering a sense of purpose and engagement among staff members, connected leadership engenders an inclusive and supportive work environment, where individuals can thrive personally and professionally.
What do connected leaders bring to the table when building an inclusive community?
Connected leadership also has a significant impact on how EDOs engage and serve their communities. Prioritizing strong relationships with diverse groups of local businesses, community leaders, and other stakeholders might seem like unnecessary or tedious work upfront. However, this type of purposeful engagement creates a network of trust and collaboration that improves the likelihood of success. Inclusive relationship-building provides valuable insights, support, and resources, enabling economic developers to implement more effective strategies in partnership with local stakeholders.
- Invite everyone. First, by making engagement the cornerstone of all economic development efforts, connected leaders can help convene diverse stakeholders to work toward common goals and drive innovation. An inclusive effort will not only bring together different sectors and industries, but also voices that are multigenerational and ethnically, racially, socioeconomically, geographically, and gender diverse. EDOs can leverage the network they have helped assemble to access additional expertise and ideas, funding opportunities, and shared resources. Inclusive engagement allows for the pooling of knowledge and the exchange of best practices, potentially leading to more innovative and impactful economic development initiatives.
- Build trust. Connected leaders can also work to engender a sense of community between team members and stakeholders, which builds trust and increases the likelihood of better outcomes. In opening the lines of communication and better understanding stakeholder needs and expectations, EDOs will foster credibility and support for their initiatives. This inclusive approach ensures that the activities of EDOs better align with the interests of key stakeholders and, thus, drives sustainable economic growth.
- Create consensus. Finally, leaders who emphasize shared values and goals are best able to facilitate the alignment of stakeholders around a common vision for economic development. A collaborative strategic framework and clearly defined priorities are integral to ensuring that efforts are focused and coordinated. If the consensus-building process is inclusive and relationship-based, stakeholders are more likely to champion EDO programs and initiatives within the community.
In today’s rapidly changing political, cultural, and business landscape, connected leadership is essential to economic development. An inclusive organizational culture achieved through enhanced collaboration and engagement leads to more informed decision-making, better alignment with community needs, and agile responses to market changes. Future-ready leaders understand that staff, stakeholders, and partners must be included in the economic development process to drive sustainable growth and positive outcomes for all. By embracing connected leadership, economic developers can best position their organizations and their communities to thrive no matter the challenges faced today or tomorrow.