A recent conversation with a friend over a (virtual!) coffee highlighted frustrations over our ‘new normal’ – a phrase we’re doubtless all bored of hearing as we’ve come to acclimatise to our new ways of living, working and leading. “How can it be normal if it’s all so new? And if everything keeps shifting then surely we need to be more concerned with tomorrow than we are with what may or may not be normal today?”.
When it comes to organisations, the point is a salient one; we simultaneously need to deliver now AND prepare for the challenges of delivering in the future. But how to prepare leaders to do this in a world where even normal isn’t normal anymore?
The answer lies in developing the people and skills that will give you the best chance of success in a number of possible futures, and more importantly, being clear that these may not be the same as those that brought success to date. As the phrase goes, ‘what got you here, won’t get you there’ and this applies as much for leadership as it does for individual leaders. So, what does leadership for tomorrow look like and how to develop the right leaders to deliver it?
Firstly, let’s state the obvious and say no one knows for sure what tomorrow will bring so the only certainty is that any framework for leadership has to be more carefully designed than ever. Moreover, it needs to take into account broader and more flexible skills in order for leaders to deal with the rapid shifts brought about by Industry 4.0 , as much as the unpredictable events that upset our versions of normal. As outlined in our recent article on the new leadership capabilities, ‘metacompetencies’ such as learning agility and adaptability become much more important than defining specific skills that might lead to success today – if the world changes around you, current skills alone won’t do. Ensuring any leadership framework includes a capacity for learning, adapting to new environments and moderating one’s own skills and behaviours will therefore be key.
Secondly, we need to move away from the idea that we can identify leaders of the future simply by looking at the people who have succeeded in those roles in the past. Seeking previous experience, over and above future potential, may address the need to deliver quickly today but is a guaranteed way to miss many of the right people to lead the business for tomorrow. Many leaders with the agility to succeed in new environments, learn quickly in the role and may progress rapidly through organisations or functions without building the years of experience that often act as shorthand for capability. Moreover, we know from decades of research into systemic bias, that talented individuals from minority groups may not get the same opportunities and experiences to progress. Looking for leaders in the same mould as have gone before risks perpetuating these inequalities and missing out on the critical talent you may need for the future.
So if you have built the right framework and identified the right individuals, how to develop those people to lead for tomorrow? Our approach identifies several key steps in developing leaders for an as yet unknown future:
Key steps in developing leaders for an as yet unknown future
The first stage is building the motivation and energy for your leaders to engage in the personal development journey; providing a vision for the future and helping them see how they can contribute. This might be via bringing future challenges to life, supporting them to identify their own goals and ambitions, and aligning the two by designing a clear call to action for leadership in your organisation. Without this critical phase, it’s unlikely any development intervention will gain the momentum to succeed.
With motivation in place, you can focus on the activities that help individuals understand their current strengths and development areas and where they need to focus to build the leadership skills you’ve defined for the future. Interview-based assessments can help leaders reflect on their own and other’s views of their capabilities, whereas simulation-based approaches can go further in giving them the opportunity to explore their skills in a new environment.
As the future becomes less predictable, helping leaders build competence in a variety of environments becomes ever more critical; and waiting for these opportunities to appear organically becomes risky. Taking a structured approach to identifying or creating stretch opportunities that build breadth and agility will grow a more flexible leadership population, ready for the challenge when the environment shifts.
Plan purposeful development pathways, making use of all available tools and learning opportunities to help individuals quickly get to where you want them to be; training, mentoring, job rotations, all these and more can be used to accelerate growth but the key is to align these to a clearly agreed path and then enabling the individual to stay on track. Digital tools can help nudge leaders to stick to their learning commitments and the right infrastructure of organisational support can ensure that learning transfers across different environments.
We know the biggest proportion of development typically happens on the job, so if you’ve robustly identified potential, then you can feel confident appointing those individuals into bigger and more challenging roles. Once there, it is important to continue supporting the development journey and helping leaders reflect on the behaviours and skills they are building as they continue to grow; coaching can be particularly effective here, enabling individuals to embed the learning for tomorrow even as they deliver today.