This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.
It’s a new year, a time one might associate with rebirth, fresh starts, and bold resolutions. And yet there is a pervasive feeling of generalized exhaustion. The recent scale and unrelenting pace of change are taking their toll.
When Jacinda Ardern made headlines for explaining that she was resigning as Prime Minister of New Zealand because she no longer had “enough in the tank” to do the demanding job after five and a half years of leading through Covid-19 and other challenges, she became just the latest, high-profile example of rising job burnout.
Some 58% of workers globally are rethinking their work-life balance, according to Bain & Company research. This is the challenging context in which executives must lead and transform their organizations.
Let’s face it—the past three years have been brutal. They brought an extraordinary level of change, including multiple waves of pandemic, new ways of working, supply disruptions, digital acceleration, macroeconomic shocks, and wild shifts in consumer behavior. And there is even more change ahead. According to Gartner research, 75% of organizations expect to multiply the types of change programs they undertake in the next three years. The CEO of a global industrial conglomerate recently lamented feeling like The Little Engine That Could , forever pulling the train up a hill that never ends and feeling like the only one left with the energy to tug and pull. The predominant feeling in many organizations is one of change fatigue.
The need to overcome this feeling makes building an organization’s capacity for change a key requirement for any executive today. And energy management—generating more energy than is consumed—is a central ingredient of the capacity for change. While the concept of energy can seem theoretical, it is, in fact, very much controllable.
Energy supply and demand
Assessing and managing an organization’s change capacity involves two things under executives’ control: first, the demand for the organization’s energy, which leaders regulate through the prioritization of work; second, the supply of energy, which they can expand by practicing inspirational leadership.
Smart prioritization is hard. Leadership teams vary dramatically in terms of the discipline and rigor with which they orchestrate this process. This starts with dispassionately prioritizing the most important issues by clarifying the company’s long-term ambition for the business and evaluating what is required to achieve that ambition, down to the specific performance gaps that will have to be addressed. Those gaps should be tracked based on their urgency and the amount of value they offer. Repeating this as a dynamic and ongoing process will give executives the flexibility to respond as business conditions shift.
The supply side of the equation is equally critical but often overlooked. Luckily, there are many ways for leaders to create energy in an organization, from articulating a compelling vision to engaged co-creation. During times of transformation, a leader’s ability to inspire others, to awaken their sense of possibility, may be the single most powerful lever for creating critical energy.
Inspirational leaders don’t fit a set formula. Bain & Company research has identified 33 different traits of inspirational leadership, of which a leader needs only four to be perceived as highly inspirational. There are thousands of possible combinations of these traits, making inspirational leadership accessible—and distinctive—to all. It can be learned, starting with a leader asking themself a set of questions that later lead to follow-on action:
- What are the distinguishing strengths that define his or her leadership brand?
- Which actions will build those strengths?
- Which obstacles may make those actions difficult to take?
- What can he or she stop or start doing in order to be more inspiring?
- How will the executive hold themself accountable?
Using increases in employee net promoter scores (eNPS) as a rough proxy for energy, it’s possible to see the impact an energy boost has on the corporate bottom line. Bain & Company research found that organizations that increased their eNPS during large-scale transformations generated total shareholder returns and EBIT margins twice that of peers.
Business transformations are a battle for energy. Win that battle, and the financial returns will follow.