The context for every business is changing at an unprecedented rate and in unprecedented ways. Sudden or slow, good or bad, change is hard. It stretches leaders and disrupts settled thinking. We help leaders, and the Talent professionals who support them, to understand the challenges they face. Exploring your context is the first step in defining a new Leadership Framework to drive assessment and development. And it can generate other insights into ways of building your leadership advantage.
The core attributes of effective leaders are well established. Indeed, we have our own reference set of capabilities, based on work with hundreds of businesses and thousands of leaders, that acts as a starting point when designing client-specific leadership frameworks. It is also becoming clear which attributes – adaptability, learning ability, empathy, authenticity, and inclusion – will be most important beyond the pandemic responses that highlighted their value. And, faced with extreme unpredictability, it makes sense that leaders be equipped to operate across a wide range of scenarios. So, you might be forgiven for thinking that we’re on the road to a ‘good enough’ generic framework. But experience and research, ours and others’ shows that leadership is most effective when its capabilities closely fit its specific context, and that is why an exploration of context is critical.
Whole world context
Context operates at different levels. There’s a general ‘whole world’ context, common to all enterprises, that expresses itself in six familiar dimensions – political, economic, social, technological, environmental, and legal. This is the world of ‘megatrends’ and it is worth looking at widely available surveys periodically to identify key themes. Right now, these include societal pressure for greater inclusivity and equality and the emergence of climate change as a concrete challenge. But the key question to be asked is always, ‘In what ways might this become relevant to our business?’ and answering it is not about prediction, but imagination.
The next level of context is strategic, which encompasses your sector and those adjacent to it and includes customers, competitors, suppliers and regulators. Key questions here are, ‘How might we need to adapt our business model to foreseeable changes in the market?’ and ‘What types of actions – proactive or defensive – are we likely to want to implement?’ (from making acquisitions to building a more resilient supply chain or pursuing different sources of funding). Exploring the strategic context helps understand how leadership drives success now and what your leaders must be able to do, today and in the future.
And then there is the organisational context – comprised of policies, roles, structures, processes, values and culture – that both reflects and tries to affect the strategic context and that can shape the behaviour of leaders and those they lead. Here, exploration is not a drains-up organisation diagnostic, but a pragmatic effort to understand how the organisation functions and the nature of the changes that leaders may have to work within or bring about.
Bringing all aspects of context together then enables us to think about the challenges leaders face in terms not of trends, events, issues and actions, but of deeper characteristics. This is where we evaluate the newness and unfamiliarity of what the context holds. We look at the difficulty, complexity, pace, and risk involved in leading. From what we know, will decision-making be harder? Will there be information overload or a need to decide quickly with more limited data? Do our current assumptions about the business and its people hold good, or might leaders have to abandon long-held beliefs? This matters because it highlights the most difficult of leadership challenges: self-reflection, personal change, and development.
Exploring context in these ways starts to tell the story of leadership’s future and of the shifts leaders may have to make to succeed in your tomorrow.