Are your leaders future proof?

It’s surprising how many organisations continue to employ and promote leaders with strong technical and operational skills, which serve to maintain the status quo, rather than nurturing the kind of talent that can better deal with future, complex challenges as they emerge. It is the nature of disruption that means that complexity will only increase in the future, requiring confident and nimble leaders to rise to the challenge and potentially transform the very nature of how things get done. What makes this proposition so daunting lies in the need to process complex information quickly, respond creatively and collaborate effectively to seize new opportunities and maintain relevance. Recent events with Brexit in the United Kingdom tells us that significant change can blindside us when it happens, and the complex implications of such change can play out for years to come. No doubt some will see opportunity in this change whilst others will struggle to process the ramifications. Many will turn to leaders to understand what comes next.

We already know that learning quickly from missteps and bad decisions, being open to feedback and coaching, and above all, being resilient in the face of change are all indicators of success in a transformed organisation. The leaders who will thrive in a fast moving environment will likely be those who are geared to seeing the glass as half full, who are optimistic in the face of challenges and who are comfortable exploring problems from many different angles. Never before has creative thinking in leadership practice been required, together with the ability to harness organisational intelligence through strong relationships and collaboration.

I came across a 2015 PwC study recently, involving 6,000 executives, conducted using a research methodology developed by David Rooke of Harthill Consulting and William Torbert of Boston University. In the study, respondents were asked a series of open-ended questions which revealed their leadership preferences. These were then used to determine which types of leaders were most prominent. It is telling that only 8% of the respondents turned out to be so called ‘Strategist’ or strategic leaders geared to lead transformations. The study found that strategic leaders were marginally more likely to be women than men, and the proportion of strategic leaders increased with age. So what did they have in common and what can we learn from this?

The PwC study tells us that strategic leaders challenge prevailing views skilfully, using a combination of inquiry and advocacy to shape discussion, as well as having an ability to work in and on the business simultaneously. They learn from the mistakes quickly and change course accordingly. They know when to command, and when to empower and engage. Above all, they are women and men who operate from a basis of respect for others, and a deeply held humility.

Some will seize on this research to validate the focus of leadership development and education over the last several decades, especially when it comes to developing leaders to think more strategically, to engage in skilful discussion and to embrace the benefits of being an emotionally competent individual. Peter Senge, Dan Goleman and others have well established the merits of best leadership practice in their respective fields, and their work continues to resonate. This still leaves the question of what comes next?

When I think of the stand-out leaders I have worked with globally over the past 21 years, whether it be private or public sector, agility seems to be the characteristic they have in common. Lominger and others have focused on this as a form of ‘learning agility’, being dynamic in response to change, and learning from the whole range of challenges and situations that present themselves, from remarkable to unremarkable. Above all, leaders need to reflect to harness the learning potential from everyday situations – I have captured these as a series of capabilities and mindsets, 11 elements in total. So how do you stand?

  1. To what extent do you exhibit comfort in operating in an environment of change, ambiguity and complexity?
  2. To what extent do you have a capacity to look at problems from many other points of view, and can clearly articulate your problem solving and thinking processes?
  3. Do you have constructive relationships with others, leveraging these relationships for their ongoing learning?
  4. Do you seek to learn from past performance reviews and treat set-backs as learning opportunities?
  5. Are you resilient in times of change, and do you have the intention to learn and grow during times of challenge?
  6. To what extent do you have a curiosity about how things work, and like to experiment to inform your understanding?
  7. Do you engage in regular skill building activities at work?
  8. Do you like to generate new ideas and exhibit a passion for innovation?
  9. Do you have a ‘leadership presence’ that builds confidence in others?
  10. Do you set high benchmarks for your work performance, and encourage others to do similarly?
  11. Do you challenge yourself to produce results under challenging circumstances?

It would be a rare leader indeed who would respond that they exhibit all of these characteristics to a very great extent, and some will be more relevant in some organisations and sectors than others. As a starting point though, it does represent a roadmap of success for future-proofing leaders, and acts as a way of focusing development experiences that maximise the opportunity to grow in important areas. Mobility and challenging assignments continue to play their part in developing leaders and their learning agility. So too does self-awareness help leaders to focus on the things they are good at, and to leverage the skills of others in their weaker points.

So where do ethics fit in terms of future-proofing leaders? I often reflect on my time at RMIT University in the 1990s, where I was part of a unit focused on teaching managerial and business ethics. Think TYCO, Enron and the other big corporate exposures of the recent decades and you have a case for educating executives around ethical decision making and corporate choices. Fast forward to 2016, and we seem not to have advanced much in this area, yet globalisation means we have many more ethical choices and challenges than ever before. Ask retailers or manufacturers about their supply chain, or Banks about their lending or business development practices, and you may well find a myriad of exposures brought about by increased competition and a need to act quickly to gain competitive advantage. Who then, is thinking about the longer term implications of key organisational decisions and ensuring sustainability in world of social-media lead democracy – and which organisations will suffer from not preparing their leaders to think in this regard?

Why not start a conversation around future proofing your leaders with Paul Mills Consulting Pty Ltd?