While no one can see the future with perfect clarity, we must be prepared to adapt to whatever we encounter, not just what we expect. It is crucial then that business leaders need to start developing critical competencies now in order to be prepared for future business and leadership challenges.
Ten years ago, and again in 2016, our organization, the Center for Creative Leadership, queried its most recent database of 360 assessment responses and asked the bosses and coworkers of tens of thousands of leaders three key questions:
What leadership skills and perspectives are critical for success?
How strong is the leadership bench in these critical skills and perspectives?
And what potential pitfalls lie ahead for these leaders?
The studies included data from more than 40,000 executives rated by more than 400,000 coworkers and bosses. Using the language of the 360 assessments we deployed, they told us that leading employees; strategic perspective; decisiveness; composure; change management; and building relationships were the most critical skills in order for the organizations to survive and thrive. Interestingly, 10 years later, the list looks about the same, with composure dropping out of the top six and being a quick study replacing it.
We also asked about the skills that are most needed to ensure career success. Then and now, managing change; learning agility; interpersonal relationships; and collaboration led the list of critical skills. It’s safe to assume that as we go forward, these bedrock core competencies will remain important.
As we examine these skills that are shaping how organizations are beginning to operate differently and will operate in the future, we see the convergence of new generational preferences, new forms of technology-supported collaboration, globalization, flatter organizational structures, more open organizational boundaries, rapid advances in knowledge of all kinds, and the use of big data analytics shifting the landscape within which leaders (and others) exercise influence.
As indicated by the subtle shifts in the most important skills needed today, in today’s hyperfast world of constant complex change, there are some competencies that will rise to even greater prominence than in the past.
- Discovery-based learning.
While the ability to learn has always been a desirable trait in leaders, the criticality of learning will grow in a world of fast-paced, innovation-driven change. The type of learning that will be required is not just learning from books or even experience, which in our research has accounted for about 70 percent of what leaders say they know about leadership. Now, learning agility is important, combined with learning from experiments versus relying on experience alone. This competency is exhibited through:
Curiosity and openness to new ideas and points of view.
Willingness to take calculated risks in order to learn.
The ability to structure learning experiments that produce fresh insights.
Encouraging dissent, challenge and sustained tension during the period that new ideas are being fermented.
Actively seeking input from a wide variety of sources inside and outside the organization.
Challenging the status quo; maintaining a state of perpetual interest in making things better.
- Collaborative strategic decision making.
Engaging others as partners in making decisions is something that good leaders have always done. However, this was balanced in the past with a healthy dose of “willingness to take charge and make the tough calls” as an individual leader in the face of confusion or disagreement. The need to provide “leadership” was an excuse for control-oriented leaders to exercise authority even in situations where collaborative leadership might have produced better decisions. In the future, flatter organizational structures, cultures of equality and teamwork among knowledgeable contributors in and outside the organization, and less willingness on the part of members of the new generations to put up with positional power over knowledge-based power will force leaders to adapt. In his book “The Open Organization,” CEO Jim Whitehurst of software maker Red Hat describes in detail how he needed to shift his leadership style from the time that he led a turnaround at Delta Airlines to accommodate the non-hierarchical, collaborative culture of Red Hat. It is a shift that many leaders will need to make, and it requires the following capabilities:
Understanding the value of collaborative decision-making and being able to lead processes that bring out the best in what people have to offer.
Instead of “influencing without authority,” learning how to influence with authority to create interdependent rather than dependent organizational cultures.
Demonstrating authentic support for people working together to make and own decisions of importance to the future of the enterprise, when it really matters.
The ability to recognize when the need to reach consensus is driving out dissent and overpowering high-quality decision-making.
Seeking the best solution versus the most expedient one.
- Shaping work for meaning.
Millennials are looking for challenging assignments that provide opportunities for learning and growth. As only about 13 percent of the workforce is highly engaged, there is much work to be done. It’s not that young people want to flee large bureaucratic organizations to join startups; most would prefer to continue to work where they are but won’t if opportunities to learn, grow and advance seem limited or a long way off. There are plenty of meaningful challenges to be tackled in large organizations but this work can’t be reserved for the few versus the many. Leaders can support and develop this organizational competency by:
Stimulating and then listening to ideas that can be translated into meaningful opportunities by those who invent them.
Acknowledging and rewarding efforts to make the organization better or more successful, especially when it is beyond job requirements or expectations.
Providing time, space and resources for innovation that anyone with a worthwhile idea can access.
Removing barriers that exist to people exploring ideas with others across the organization and outside of it.
Allowing people to assume positions of influence based on their ideas rather than their titles alone.
- Activating Open Networks.
Organizations of the future will rely more on networks of temporary contributors from outside the organization much more than organizations do today. Beyond outsourcing jobs to reduce expenses, leaders of the future will recognize that the expertise and capabilities that can be captured via full-time employment are but a microcosm of the total expertise available in the global labor pool. Knowing how to create and leverage open networks will be a key differentiator between successful leaders of the past and those of the future. To realize the value of open networks, leaders must begin by:
Defining and structuring meaningful projects in which experts outside of the organization can assist.
Activating and facilitating networks of individuals collaborating virtually to bring out the best thinking and fastest speed to market.
Ensuring adequate engagement from internal resources in supporting open networks and capitalizing on their innovations to help the organization achieve optimal diversification and growth.
Influencing the activities of voluntary network contributors to “steer” them toward valued outcomes.
Learning to build more powerful open networks that seize key knowledge assets and translate them into high-payoff investments.
- Leading complex and continuous change.
Leading a single complex change is difficult, but leading multiple, simultaneous complex changes requires skills of a higher order. Today, the success of single change efforts remains stuck at about 33 percent, a figure that hasn’t moved for decades despite years of research, executive education and acknowledgment that there is a serious problem here. In the future, change will be key to every major breakthrough, of which there are potentially very many. To seize these opportunities, leaders will need to up their game concerning change by taking the following steps:
Get ahead of the change curve by identifying and prioritizing opportunities more quickly.
Building greater capacity in individuals, teams, units and networks to undertake successful change.
Understanding the interdependencies of multiple simultaneous changes and address them rather than hoping that the competing demands for resources, time and attention will somehow sort themselves out.
Continuously increase the speed of change by doing it better, not pushing harder.
- Pursuing vertical development.
Vertical development is adding more complex thinking capacity versus simply adding more skills to a repertoire. Since the complex challenges of the future will require systems thinking at a much higher level, leaders must be able to elevate their ability to see the entire picture and take actions that will enable long-term shifts in strategy and capabilities. Instead of breaking things down into discrete short-term activities, leaders will need to be able to balance the here and now against preparing for the future, by:
Developing the ability to see patterns and shift systems and processes to enable future possibilities.
Learning to think in terms of paradoxes or polarities instead of focusing exclusively on the ends of a continuum.
Envisioning long-term possibilities rather than being paralyzed by current limitations or barriers to innovation.
Understanding the potential of technology to transform the organization and the world.
Seeing beyond personal achievement and advancement in order to ignite collaborative efforts to achieve what would otherwise be impossible. These are just a few areas in which workforce competencies are shifting. As we begin 2017, people managers and leaders should resolve to be nimble in identifying and addressing the changing competencies for the success of your employees and your organization.