Jessica Nordlander is wearing a hat and looking off to the distance.
Jessica Nordlander. Image: SJS Public Relations

Thoughtexchange’s Jessica Nordlander on why we need crowd leaders, not loud leaders

16 Mar 2020

COO at Thoughtexchange and Sweden’s ‘Most Innovative Leader’, Jessica Nordlander, discusses how leadership needs to evolve to meet the needs of the future of work.

Jessica Nordlander is COO at Thoughtexchange, an enterprise crowdsourcing firm in Canada. With previous positions as head of business development at Google and managing director for Stockholm, Dubai and Vancouver for SaaS company Meltwater, Nordlander was recently awarded the title of Sweden’s ‘Most Innovative Leader’ from the country’s Chefgalan.

Here, she discusses what she believes organisations must do to prepare for the changes the future of work will bring.

‘I think we are still mostly building workplaces for efficiency, or even worse – for the illusion of efficiency and control’

What has your career journey been like?

At college, I started my studies in engineering, later leaned into business and then went back for a master’s degree in informatics. What has resulted is a competence that spans nearly as widely as my interests do – across sciences, technologies, business models, cultures and human behaviours – and even though it at times has felt random, my biggest career contributions have been in areas where there are big problems to be solved and technology is being used as a lever to find solutions.

When I left Google, I had spent my entire career in disruptive software companies and felt that it had made me a bit naive to the challenges of incumbents. To sit at a company like Google or Meltwater and talk about digital transformation as if you know what it is like to go through that type of change, and wonder why companies that are being disrupted aren’t doing more to avoid it – I felt like I was talking the talk but not walking the walk.

I was named Sweden’s Most Innovative Leader for the transformation journey we did at STS and it gave me a lot of insight into what it means to lead through disruption and change. I was dumbfounded by the lack of tools available to leaders to solve complex challenges like cultural transformation, so when I discovered Thoughtexchange, I felt that it was meant to be.

What, in your opinion, does an effective workplace of the future look like?

I will answer this with a focus on the typical office environment. Effective workplaces of the future need to balance both the need for efficiency and for innovation. I think we are still mostly building workplaces for efficiency or – even worse – for the illusion of efficiency and control.

A great example of an illusion of control is no work-from-home policy with the excuse that you want people to collaborate in person, or that it would be difficult for people to be efficient from home.

Workplaces of the future will need to start truly questioning these outdated beliefs and offer people the opportunity to work wherever they do their best work.

Another example is around transparency. If you truly want to tap into the rich, collective intelligence of your entire workforce, you are going to have to start questioning some outdated beliefs about transparency and trust.

Are there any skills leaders need to develop to achieve that?

Most management practices still have, at their core, an outdated idea that maximum efficiency leads to sustainable competitive advantage. Efficiency is a lot about eliminating waste but for innovation to happen, you need room for experimentation and failure, because you are seeking out new knowledge.

The successful, dynamic balancing of managing current demands while being adaptable to changes in the environment is referred to as ‘organisational ambi-dexterity’. Leaders need to become masters of this.

Ambi-dexterity is not a muscle that most leaders and managers in larger corporations have spent a lot of time training over the years and that is reflected in how we design our workplaces and how we execute leadership.

What are the biggest things holding leaders back?

I think it is a combination between skill and will. As I mentioned, when you have trained one particular muscle for a long time, it is hard to start using a different one. That is the skill. On the will – or motivation – side, some power transfer needs to happen, and somehow giving others more power always tends to feel like you are losing something yourself.

To reach higher levels of trust and transparency, leaders need to take a good look at themselves and accept that the role they might have had in the past is not what they need to be in the future.

At Thoughtexchange, we refer to this paradigm shift as going “from loud to crowd leadership”. Going from one person with a voice, a direction and strong decision-making skills, to a person that can activate crowds of people, tap into their collective intelligence and build stronger organisations.

A lot of these things holding leaders back are related to company culture and psychological safety – a fearful or negative attitude towards continuous learning, experimentation and failure, for example.

What about the role of diversity?

We have spent hundreds of years perfecting what it means to be a ‘loud’ leader and what skillset goes with that. Opening up to crowd leadership taps into completely different strengths.

As the leader starts engaging in crowd leadership, they will start to tap into the collective intelligence of their organisations rather than recirculating the ideas of the same group of people in a boardroom. This allows far greater access to diversity in thought and to inclusion.

We are already starting to see the proof come through that more diverse organisations with more diverse leadership equal better performing companies.

How can leaders encourage that diversity?

We still only hear the loudest voices and miss the thoughts and concerns of the silent majority. Leadership crowdsourcing technologies that attempt to address this complexity and hear from more people, in real time and without bias, help encourage diversity.

It is disheartening that we haven’t made more progress in inclusion. I strongly believe that the biases that we are working against today in the western world are mostly unconscious, and we have to accept that everyone has them in order to make progress.

If we accept that we are all unconsciously biased, we become more open to tools and processes that can help us move forward rather than believing that we should be able to trust our gut feeling when making decisions.

The best thing we can do is to open up our organisations to unconscious bias training, lead from the top with humility and transparency about the difficulty of these issues, and commit to continuous improvement.

Do you have any advice for leaders?

When I try to figure out how I would like things to work in the future, I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about how things looked in the past and where our current behaviours and paradigms originated from.

Management practices and corporate structures to a very high degree stem from a world where economies of scale were the norm and the path to competitive advantage came from efficiencies. A lot of the tools and practices that leaders rely on are artefacts of that time.

Leadership in this day and age has a lot more to do with helping people thrive under imperfect and constantly changing conditions rather than finding ultimate perfection and efficiency in a certain task or work that is repeated over and over again.

My advice therefore is to try and find ways to disconnect psychological safety from change for your team. If your people can thrive under constantly changing conditions, you will have an enormous competitive advantage.

Are there any resources you would recommend?

I tend to be quite data driven and generally prefer to lean on learnings from research done on hundreds or thousands of organisations, rather than some dude writing about his personal experiences from the grand total of two companies he worked for. Having said that, I do love Masters of Scale.

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