How to solve today’s talent challenges — and prepare for tomorrow’s business opportunities

“Eco-system” mindsets, behaviors, and business structures are needed now and for the future.

(Originally posted on SmartBrief, June 2, 2022)

Leaders today are struggling to create workplaces that attract and retain employees who feel engaged and empowered.

At the same time, leaders face a future defined by agile, interdependent networks of organizations and stakeholders.

Both challenges require a shift from traditional top-down, siloed, “ego-system” business practices.

There’s no app for that—no simple magic bullet. But embracing an “eco-system” approach can help you address both near-term talent challenges and long-term business transformation needs.

What is an “eco-system” approach? Creating and capturing value by connecting across organization capabilities and resources is at the core of a business ecosystem. So, an “eco-system” approach begins with the ability to collaborate and co-create across organizational boundaries to deliver a high-quality experience.

In the case of your customer, no single business function “owns” the entire experience. Product development teams play a role, but so do salespeople, and the customer service reps who provide post-sale support. What’s more, leading organizations are co-creating solutions with their customers, partners, and suppliers through integrated, coordinated ecosystem relationships in which all stakeholders benefit.

This is as true for your employees as it is for your customers. No single function – or organization – owns the entire experience. Creating an attractive, engaging workplace environment requires collaboration across groups including managers, HR, IT, and external suppliers. And it turns out that working collaboratively to co-create their work experience is also what employees are looking for in today’s workplace. So, getting better at “eco-system” practices is good for addressing your talent challenges and for improving your business competitiveness.

The problem is that most organizations function in more of a vertical, hierarchical, self-centered, “ego-system” model.

How do you foster a healthy ecosystem within your walls? We suggest you focus on three areas: mindsets, behaviors, and business structures.

–Mindsets. In an ecosystem, success is a collective measure. One entity can’t be successful at the expense of the others. Leaders must adopt a view of success that encompasses the wellbeing of all stakeholders, including workers. Pay attention to employees’ needs for fair pay, autonomy, and a sense of purpose.

What’s more, employees should be encouraged to expand their mindsets. It’s important that they develop a big-picture view of your company – from how it serves customers and collaborates with partners to how their role contributes to business results – so they feel aligned with business goals and can contribute better ideas.

Scholar Roland Deiser calls the “ability to step out of an ego-centered frame of reference” and see things from an elevated perspective “decentration competence.”

–Behaviors. Leaders’ day-to-day activities must promote a positive, engaging experience for employees. Building trusting relationships through listening and empathy is vital. So is encouraging employees to build personal networks within and beyond the team. As scholars Rob Cross and Jean Singer have pointed out, such connections are vital to both business performance and personal well-being.

Leaders also need to inspire creativity and experimentation. Encourage your employees to take initiative, collaborate, and learn – in part by providing a safe space for failure. Celebrate healthy risk-taking by telling the stories of individuals and teams that experimented, failed, learned, and iterated their way to success.

–Business structures. Speed, transparency, and flexibility are important for cross-organizational collaboration. Unfortunately, multiple decision layers, vertical silos that don’t talk to each other, and conflicting internal stakeholder interests are frequent obstacles.

Leaders need to reduce organization layers, release some control, and empower managers, teams, and employees to make decisions and act. Leading people who don’t report to you is a challenge to traditional reporting relationships. Leadership in this context is about influencing. This includes aligning people with the purpose of the work and defining measures that reward collective performance, which could require a change in compensation practices.

With these mindsets, behaviors, and business structures, your people will feel more engaged and perform better, individually and collectively. They will learn the skills that will enable your organization to create – and adapt to – market disruptions. And your organization will be better prepared to thrive in a world of agile business networks.

By cultivating an effective internal ecosystem, you can solve today’s talent challenges and prepare for tomorrow’s business opportunities.

Jodi Starkman is Executive Director of the Innovation Resource Center for Human Resources.