Leadership in a Fast-Changing Future

December 05, 2017
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by Ian Taylor, and Christien Winter, Executive Directors at Sheffield in New Zealand

This article originally appeared in The NZ Herald, and can be found online here

Technology has radicalised almost every workplace. This reality has changed the required skill sets needed by most employers. For the majority, computer skills are mandatory, along with a basic understanding and competency in using specific computer software. These skills have gone from being assigned to a select few, to becoming ubiquitous across the entire workforce.

But what qualities are now required of high impact leaders? Some skills, such as communication, coaching and execution, are important at any time. Others are demanded by an increasingly complex environment. To some degree, while the tools of doing business have changed, fundamentals of good leadership remain grounded in understanding the human dimension of employee motivation and performance. Thus, soft skills continue to be prominent and, increasingly, are a cornerstone to leadership success as the context keeps shifting in our changing world. A critical overlay is now the need for innovation, versatility and adaptability, with the ability to navigate ambiguity and guide others through change upon change. The ‘certainty of change’ has become a cliché in our lexicon and the disruption which claims the lives of businesses and industries that fail to stare into the crystal ball of change is a common occurrence. This is a predictable narrative of doing business in the 21st century.

So what skills truly make a difference in this highly disruptive world? Well, it depends on how you define ‘make a difference’. For most businesses, commercial success remains a priority. To this point DDI’s research points to a direct correlation between the all-important bottom line and the set of skills that are unashamedly referred to as ‘money skills’. These include: entrepreneurship, business savvy, driving execution, decision-making and leading change. Funnily enough these are not exclusively 21st century skills, are they? In fact, they fit the mindset of every great business leader, from Steve Jobs to Henry Ford.

Research has shown that the most profitable companies have leaders with wide-ranging skills, and it is important to note that a few talented leaders cannot compensate for a large group of mediocre ones. You want to improve commercial performance? Start developing the relevant skills with those who have clear leadership potential inside your business through a very calculated and targeted approach to leadership development. So how are highly capable leaders developed who can confidently navigate into this future?

According to DDI’s global leadership and talent research, the portion of organisations reporting sufficient leadership bench strength, has declined from an already-low 18 percent to only 13 percent. Other research supports the often reported ‘talent and leadership shortage’ as a critical issue. Many companies have attempted to identify external ‘superstars’ with potential to address their leadership ‘gap’; others actively look to develop their own leadership bench strength.

There is increasing evidence that leaders who are grown from within an organisation, generally perform much better than those who are sourced externally, with a success rate for a leader in a role being 3.8 times better if they have been nurtured and grown internally. The quality then of an internal leadership acceleration programme is crucial to lifting business performance by building the skills that are critical.

Developing such a programme requires a fundamental shift in thinking. For some companies, building and ‘bench strength’ readiness is seen merely as replacement planning. The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. The most effective talent strategy is about developing a pool of leaders that could potentially take on a range of leadership roles. An excellent way to develop and accelerate leadership capability is to help individuals develop competencies they may apply to roles beyond their own, and in a changing environment that demands a recalibration of leadership thinking and action.

The other secret to developing a successful leadership pool, is in the accurate identification of potential, motivation and readiness. Potential is not the same as capability. Potential needs to be fed and nurtured to achieve readiness; neither are relevant if the individual is not motivated to realise their potential. Thus, a personalised and targeted approach far outstrips a series of leadership courses. This notion also makes sense as we all have different learning capabilities; professional development is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Developing leadership potential also works well if it is identified early in an employee’s career, along with their motivation. Those who realise their potential are often the ones who have been offered growth and development opportunities early on. Offering early career leadership opportunities is also an effective way of increasing diversity within a talent pool.

A long-term and organisational view makes all the difference.