A flexible and supportive leadership model will keep the best people on a team, measuring success by performance, not presence.

The butts-in-seats leadership model is failing

A flexible and supportive leadership model will keep the best people on a team, measuring success by performance, not presence.

Photo by Jose Losada | Unsplash

I’ve built my career and made job decisions primarily based on fit and flexibility. No matter the position or the company, I’m constantly asking, “How can I build my career and balance my family?” That one question has made me a better, more empathetic leader. 

A few weeks ago, I had an employee returning from maternity leave. She is a rockstar—exactly the talent I want on my team. She came to me to discuss her plan to return, and honestly, she wasn’t sure what she needed. She didn’t want to come back full-time yet, but she also didn’t want to be fully remote. She needed flexibility and support to figure out her needs month by month. I simply said, “I want you on the team. Let’s just figure it out as time goes on. You tell me what you need today, and we will check in monthly and adapt as it makes sense.” 

Why did I say that? Because that’s how I feel. I want her on my team, and I’m willing to make it work for what she needs because that’s what I need, too. 

When I had my first child, my boss also let me customize my schedule and work location (this was way before hybrid was a thing). From that moment, I knew flexibility and customization were my way forward. I knew I would sacrifice some jobs and opportunities to build a career and a family, but I wanted both. Now, as I build teams, I lean into a flexible leadership style and good talent in all forms to make the job beneficial for my employees. We all should. 

Adaptability retains talent

I’ve had this same conversation dozens of times throughout my career. Top-level workers want to find a way to engage in the workforce that allows them to balance their family and other important life areas. Every time we’ve made it work, it’s more than paid off in the devotion, commitment and loyalty the employees bring to their work. Whether they want to step back and take fewer hours, schedule hybrid hours or create a remote setup, preserving good talent has paid dividends. It’s built the careers of promising professionals and helped teams and organizations grow and succeed.

But today’s work environment makes it harder and harder to do this—especially for women. Despite coming off the heels of a pandemic where we learned so much about remote work, hybrid work and work-life balance, many companies and leaders are mandating returns to dated working structures that measure performance largely by time spent in a seat. That pushes good talent out the door, especially women, even though they want to engage, perform and contribute. It would have pushed me out the door, too. 

"The world is changing, and leadership needs to change, too. We need a leadership model that measures success by performance, not presence."

According to McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace 2022 report, 90 percent of women wanted to continue working hybrid, and only 14 percent said that was a personal preference. The rest said they needed the flexibility to balance their familial responsibilities. That does not mean they want to work less. Many of these women are top-performing people in their teams, departments and companies. They want to win and exceed expectations. They also want the ability to balance their life with their rockstar career. But when the clock and a seat are the most important things, high performers get pushed out. 

Losing good talent like this is a big deal. During difficult times, a company’s best asset to help weather the storm is people—people who are good problem solvers, people who know and understand the organization, people who can see opportunities and drive results, people who can help you test, fail and optimize as quickly as possible. Leadership models that push out high-performers who don’t fit the traditional office hours are cutting that essential talent when their company and teams need it most. 

Not all flexibility arrangements with remote or hybrid work have gone seamlessly. There have been cases of quiet quitting, juggling multiple jobs or underperforming. In these cases, management should intervene, and it may be necessary to restructure arrangements or dismiss employees. But the bigger question in these cases is not if flexibility or remote work is working; it’s about employee engagement. How much or little people work does not magically change when sitting in an office. All that changes is some leaders’ ability to watch what’s happening. 

Multiple generations, multiple solutions

For the first time, we have five generations in the workforce. Each one has different career expectations, work habits and communication styles. Leaders who rely on one-size-fits-all models that measure performance by butts in seats will fail to engage this dynamic workforce. They won’t grow their people or their companies to their fullest potential. They might get their employees’ physical presence, but they will never get their best work. 

The world is changing, and leadership needs to change, too. We need a leadership model that measures success by performance, not presence. Employees play a vital role in this. Employees and leaders must have dynamic, ongoing conversations about communication, scheduling and expectations to create a model that works. Returning to the 8-5 Monday through Friday model would be easier. But, while that model will fill seats, the best people won’t be in them. Those people need more, and so do their leaders. 

I am so grateful for my boss who was willing to think outside the box with my work arrangement early in my career. That’s what real leadership is, and that’s the kind of leader today’s workforce needs.

Cydni Tetro is recognized as an innovator of experience, a growth leader, technologist, STEM advocate, author, and speaker. A former tech founder, she is also a co-founder of the Women Tech Council.