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What skill set should anyone who wants to be a people leader in this new world of work learn?

What skill set should anyone who wants to be a people leader in this new world of work learn?

Asynchronous communication, empathetic leadership and a bias for action can all prepare a new generation of people leaders, members of Protocol's Braintrust say.

Good afternoon! In today's Braintrust, we asked the experts to think about how work has changed and how leadership has changed with it. We asked workplace leaders to tell us what skills they thought would be most valuable to being a people leader in the new world of work. Questions or comments? Send us a note at

Katie Burke

Chief people officer at HubSpot

Peter Drucker said, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” That’s as true as it’s ever been for leaders in this moment. I think two skills are particularly important for people leaders right now: the first is recognizing that the way we work has evolved permanently, not temporarily, as a result of the pandemic. There is nothing wrong with wanting to see your team in person, particularly after two years of connecting virtually, but I do think we are seeing people leaders resort rapidly to shifting everything to in-person trainings, onboardings and required days back in the office. I think the best people leaders will resist that urge, recognizing that some of the trends accelerated by the pandemic — a desire for flexibility and autonomy, and employees’ wish to build their work around their lives — are not going away. The best people leaders embrace the future versus trying to recreate the past.

The second skill is great asynchronous communication skills. The best leaders will be able to provide inspiration and valuable context to their teams without being able to be face-to-face with every member of their team. That means tools like Loom, Slack and effective knowledge management onboarding documents become more important than they ever have been, and that people leaders who continue to innovate and invest in effective asynchronous communications will be the most effective.

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Zoë Harte

Chief people officer at Upwork

The most important skill for anyone who wants to be a people leader in this new world of work is empathetic leadership. I would argue that this was always the most critical differentiator between good and exceptional leaders, but that this new world has driven this need to the forefront. People leaders will need to learn how to cultivate compassionate workplace environments that prioritize mental health. A human, empathetic approach to leadership means not just recognizing but learning from and celebrating all aspects of our teams to drive transformative results.

It’s also essential to possess an interest in adopting, learning and utilizing new tech tools, as companies will continue to lean on technology that helps them adopt a more agile and distributed workforce of remote talent to drive results.

Finally, it’s important to maintain a willingness to iterate with your team and receive genuine feedback on what's working from them and what's not. Because the pandemic pushed people leaders to prioritize building authentic human connections with their teams, they must be willing to share their honest, full, professional selves, from the joys to the struggles. If you create the illusion that everything is perfect, then everybody around you feels like that’s how they need to present themselves. Ultimately, people leaders who can empower teams to have the emotional and psychological safety to give real feedback to their leaders will be bolder, more innovative and most effective.

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Tracy Williams

Chief people and diversity officer at New Relic

Today’s leaders have seen new sides of our employees, and them of us. While we're no longer interacting in the office every day, we’ve seen each other's kitchens and living rooms, children and pets, sharing a more holistic glimpse of our lives. This redrawing of boundary lines requires people leaders to cultivate a mix of both hard and soft skills to connect with, nurture, and help employees thrive.

The first may be the most simple, but also the most challenging: we need to be strong communicators. Whether it be in person, over Zoom, Slack, or email, the clarity and frequency of communication will rule the day and become even more important in the future. Leaders need to be brave and vulnerable. Not just when it’s easy but when it’s hard.

Secondly, leadership styles need to change for new styles of work. Feedback structures have become outdated, rigid, and rooted in top-down approaches that are detrimental to ideas from some employees. We must have a growth mindset with new ways of collaborating.

Leaders also need to be more data-driven. We’re no longer seeing employees on a daily basis. Therefore, leaders need to collect, analyze and draw insights from data to understand employee engagement, happiness, productivity, and retention trends. What employee groups need more support? How are you promoting mental health? How diverse are your teams, and what are promotion and retention rates amongst different groups? These are all questions that need to be asked and answered honestly with transparency and accountability.

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Colleen McCreary

Chief people, places & publicity officer at Credit Karma

Leading with principled courage & conviction are crucial skills for all aspiring people leaders. People teams are the product managers of the systems and tools that support the company's business goals and employee experience. They should consistently review those systems and tools to ensure they align with the values and goals of the company.

People teams should:

  • Intentionally carve out time for honest, real conversations with leadership and employees to understand what the business goals are and then be able to explain with clarity, context and consistency how your programs connect to those.
  • Take initiative to evaluate company programs to ensure they are inclusive, but not taking a one-size-fits-all approach. This is not a one-time evaluation, but rather something that should be revisited every year.
  • Remember, people ops are not responsible for everyone’s happiness. Happiness is an intrinsic feeling; work may not provide that. Instead, focus on what you can control: clear and consistent communication, context for decisions, providing equitable pay and creating a work environment that enables employees to do their best work.
Flexibility will continue to be critical as more people begin to return to the office. Employee health should be the top priority when it comes to return to work plans. However, with the shifting landscape, it will be important for companies to prioritize flexibility so employees have the balance they need to manage their work and home lives

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Cindy Ryan

Chief HR officer at Cigna

The last two years have contributed to creating the largest health crisis in modern history. The workforce is overwhelmed and burnt out, and employees’ work and personal lives are far more blended than ever before. COVID-19 has caused many people to question what is really important to them, and millions of employees have left their jobs for more money, flexibility or to have more time to spend with family and loved ones.

The moral of this story is that leaders who don’t prioritize the health and well-being of their employees will have a hard time attracting, retaining and engaging their teams. Research has found that a focus on well-being in the workforce increases business productivity and overall economic prosperity as well.

To lead successfully today, leaders should prioritize the mental, physical and emotional well-being of their people to inspire, motivate and harness their full potential. They should acknowledge employees as people with rich lives and experiences outside of work. They’ll also need to get comfortable talking to their teams about topics that are meaningful, such as race and social injustice, mental health, family issues and more.

While many parts of being an effective leader remain the same, skills like listening, empathy, emotional and social intelligence, and vulnerability — which were often labeled soft skills prior to the pandemic — have now become essential. A truly great leader will also demand psychological safety for their teams, so employees can work as their authentic selves, take risks and not fear retribution for showing up in a brave and vulnerable way.

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Anne Raimondi

Chief operating officer and head of Business at Asana

Employees around the world have reprioritized what they want and expect from work. Leaders must not only accept this constant change, but learn how to thrive and lead during times of uncertainty.

To be agile in the new hybrid world of work, people managers must embrace internal organization and adopt collaboration processes so teams can work more efficiently together. Our recent Asana Anatomy of Work 2022 survey found workers are only spending 33% of their time on skilled work and just 9% of their time on strategy. Work about work also remains a persistent threat, accounting for over half (58%) of an employee's day.

To enable employees to focus on the work that is truly making an impact, it’s imperative leaders champion work management tools and collaboration platforms so employees can gain real-time visibility, stay up to date on how teams are tracking and quickly course-correct on initiatives that are at risk. Whether you’re part of a globally distributed engineering team or planning a product launch while working from home, having easy-to-use, consistent tools to collaborate effectively increases focus and flow. When people leaders establish clear communication and coordination processes, team members can easily see how their work ladders up to company goals and connect more deeply to the company’s mission, and one another. It also reduces unnecessary emails, meetings and updates, eliminating work about work and allowing employees to spend more time contributing their unique talent and craft.

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Joe Militello

Chief people officer at PagerDuty

The way business and work is done has drastically changed over the past few years. Today’s successful people leaders need to be adaptable to change and able to lead their organizations through it. It has become critical as more teams are distributed and opportunities for in-person connections have declined. I see a few skills as being paramount for people leaders as they build organizations that are resilient in our new world of work.

The first is bias for action. When a problem arises, leaders tend to turn to meetings or create long-term plans as their first course of action. Instead, people leaders should adjust their mindset to “see a problem, fix a problem” in order to come to a resolution faster and impact change.

The next is creativity. In this sense, I mean creativity in how we think about development. It’s time for people leaders to go beyond team and skills-building through offsites and training weeks, and instead sharpen their focus on how to instill the skills organizations need for the new way we work. People leaders must be strategic and think critically about how to identify what skills the workforce needs to be successful in tomorrow’s business environment and design programs that get people set up for success quickly.

Judgment: As an organization scales, it needs to make sure that its policies and processes also scale. Leaders need to be able to operate in a fast-changing and ambiguous environment. Policies, process and playbooks are all necessary for scale but the leaders of the future will know how to lead in the moment.

Finally, the way to coach employees is also different. Now more than ever, it’s important to provide in-the-moment feedback and advice to help managers and people scale to deliver business and customer outcomes that matter.

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Annette Reavis

Chief people officer at Envoy

Whether fully remote or hybrid, the workplace experience will influence a person’s time at a company. My job as chief people officer is to make it the best experience it can be.

Some basics of people leadership are never going to change: Be adaptable; understand your people by building relationships with them; get to know how they think and feel. Values are great on the wall, but they need to be lived out.

However, in light of the past two years, I would also add to the list: become a champion of in-person collaboration and work-life blend.

I’m a believer in hybrid work. The best experience any company can provide starts by gathering people together — two or three times a week — to collaborate, share and problem-solve in-person. Being together in a workplace helps us build closer-knit communities and a sense of belonging. It helps develop leaders at every level. Plus, coming into the workplace some of the time is better than not at all. Companies that have figured this out and make it a priority will do well.

Work-life blend is about the in-the-moment trade-offs and choices we all have to make everyday, especially given the flexibility many have now. When I was at Meta, there were days I had a deadline, which meant I might not make dinner with my boys. But I never missed that soccer game at 3 in the afternoon. Our job will be to help our people recognize these choices, the potential trade-offs and use the flexibility they may already have.

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Kate Parente

Chief people officer at Pegasystems Inc.

Effective communication is a key foundational skill that all successful people leaders should learn and hone over time. In this new world of work, leaders are being faced with the harsh reality that what we have taken for granted over decades of working collaboratively is that our people find inspiration and direction from peers and collaborators throughout the organizations in which they work. Decades of research still corroborates that the No. 1 reason that people give up on themselves or the roles they’ve been hired into is because they are not fulfilled by the work that they are doing: either that they do not see the opportunity to develop and advance, or that they do not see the connection between what they are contributing to the overall bigger picture. Effective communication is about listening, truly listening, hearing and then offering support: It is a two-way conversation that supports talented people to fulfill their greatest potential and ultimately drives them to success in their careers. As we forge ahead in a hybrid working world, being an effective communicator is the No. 1 asset that any leader can have to inspire the best and brightest to reach their goals.

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See who's who in the Protocol Braintrust and browse every previous edition by category here (Updated April 12, 2022).
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