In 2018 Consulting firm (and my first employer) PwC predicted that as we approach 2030, the forces of change will require both greater technical skills and people skills – in the form of leadership, empathy and creativity – and emphasise that we, as humans, need to manage our own destiny. For me, that’s not just a relevant message for the leaders and future leaders of the world, but every one of us. However, for the remainder of this article I will focus on the implications for leadership.
Implications for leaders of an uncertain future
It’s imperative that business leaders engage with an uncertain future. Historically, leaders have often risen through the ranks by managing resources (including ‘human resources’ and minimising risk.
The leadership skills and tools that were developed in a world of predictability and planning are not necessarily redundant but have less relevance when rapid technological change and innovation creates disruption.
Five or so years ago it was known that electrification was key to the future of the Automotive industry, but the speed with which the traditional car makers would have to shift focus internal combustion engine and commit to electric was not. The ease with which electrical startups have entered the market and the demonization of diesel are, amongst others, factors that have accelerated this shift.
For many businesses, business planning has been sacrosanct. Now, I’d argue that the longer you plan for, the more of a fallacy your plan is. It hasn’t suddenly become wrong to plan, but you must also consider how much currency your plans hold? How far into the future do you think you can forecast accurately?
What’s more important than ever is purpose and values
Rather than, “Follow me, I know where we are going and how to get there”, it’s “I have a strong sense of what we’re aiming for and what’s important, and if we pull together, we’ll work out how to get there”.
That’s why purpose and values are important. They’re not just a buzz words, something that we think we need to do because it’s trendy and important to millennials. In the absence of a detailed map we need a strong sense of general direction, a set of principles that will keep us together on the way, and lots of trust.
Leaders will have to embrace uncertainty and change
Embracing uncertainty and change means being bold, decisive, making course changes based on data. On one hand, there is unprecedented availability of data. On the other, being responsive to the outside world might mean making some bets. “What if?” is a question that should be being asked regularly of the business.
For people to follow these bets – and themselves embrace change – they will need to have confidence in leadership. Not confidence, necessarily, that they know exactly what they are doing, but that there is some overall ‘guidance system’ and that the leadership is trustworthy – having demonstrated integrity, reliability and acting sensitively and in the best interests of the collective organisation. That means living, not just espousing, values.
All leadership is change leadership
There is, or will soon be, no distinction between leadership and change leadership. It’s a little clichéd (because its true) that businesses that are not changing are dying. Therefore, the ability to lead through change is a critical element of organisational leadership.
Businesses that are ‘transforming’ are already behind the curve
That’s a big statement to make, I know, but most businesses are in a state of catch up, because the world has been changing faster than long-standing businesses have been able to. The top-down model of transformation in an increasingly complex world simply means that the effort involved in ‘managing’ change will be too great, the machinery of transformation too cumbersome, and the results too slow. Agility is already recognised by the majority of CEOs as a key strategic goal, but it’s one that few have realised. Change needs to be decentralised and enabled, rather than managed. Corporate efforts should be in facilitating the connection between functions and project teams to help join up change,through social networks, rather than initiating major, centralised transformation.
The uncertain impact of AI and automation also has major implications for individuals. Leaders will have to consider the wider societal impact of technological change. Although the progress and impact of AI may at times be exaggerated, jobs will be lost and skills devalued, while others will be created. There will be uncertainty, and organisations will need to provide support, building resilience and adaptability, and taking more responsibility for well-being. We’re also dealing with multigenerational workforces, and an ageing population with more chronic illness, and of course obesity.
Leaders need to more connected with their own wellbeing
In order to be effective in a sustainable manner, leaders need be more self-aware, resilient and adaptable. Employees increasingly expect to be able to look after their wellbeing and be recognised as contributing to the organisation, and if they see their leaders emailing all night, not taking exercise, looking stressed and unhealthy – what message does it send?
Leaders need to role model the expectations of their people, and leadership development should prepare leaders to take a balanced view that includes an understanding of how their own biases and assumptions are reflected in their behaviour – and therefore the experience of their employees.