Leading at the Speed of Change

[This article was initially published on BlessingWhite.com following a webcast on the same topic]

“Things are changing faster than ever before!”

We hear this statement so often that it is at risk of becoming a platitude. Yet, when we look across sectors or industries, there is no denying that there is a gradual acceleration in the rate at which new innovations are introduced, markets are morphing or new business structures are implemented.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Patents. In 1994 there were 200,000 patent applications globally. In 2014 there were 615,000. So it has more than tripled in twenty years.
  • M&A activity. In the US alone M&A activity hit $2 trillion for the first time ever in 2015. The number of boards considering mergers is significant, and this in turn means major upheaval inside organizations.
  • Aviation. Commercial aviation is a bellwether for global business. If we measure by revenue, the industry has doubled over the past decade, from US $369 billion in 2004 to around $750 billion in 2015, according to the IATA. In 2014 there were 37.4M scheduled commercial flights.
  • Expatriation. Today there are 51M expats worldwide – and the number of expatriate workers is growing at 6% a year.
  • Global collaboration services. Skype now measures 1.8B hours of video conferencing a year (228K years of usage) and over 50M concurrent users. It represents over 40% of international calls. And Skype is only 12 years old.
  • Technology. The iPhone, often considered the first modern smartphone, came out in 2007. Today there are 2 Billion smartphones in use worldwide. In eight short years we have equipped 29% of the world’s population with a device connecting them to the entire depository of human knowledge.

Change is social

It is tempting to think of this as just a technology-driven issue, and that the change is primarily in the tools or the infrastructure. But technology and social change go hand in hand. With access to information, we see a rise in awareness, in education and in transparency.

We have all seen how rapidly new changes can roll out and be adopted around the world. The environment we operate in truly is morphing at a rapid pace.

From a Darwinian perspective, we would say that the faster the business environment changes, the more rapidly companies need to evolve and adapt. But companies are still burdened with old-school thinking around structure, annual planning cycles, performance management, leadership and how to engage talent.

Nonetheless, we are seeing that some changes are employer-driven, such as the creation of new organizational structures, new roles, the use of global labor resources and the like. At the same time (and often as a result,) employee expectations are changing, career patterns are shifting and the demands placed on leaders are also in transition.

Future-focused leadership

BlessingWhite is currently participating in research with several external research partners on the topic of future-focused leadership. While the research is not complete, we do have some preliminary findings, which we’ll discuss below. So, in order to adapt at a faster pace, companies need to look at three factors:

  1. How do you identify leadership potential?
  2. What are the areas or competencies that you should develop leaders around?
  3. How do you develop leaders?

It is important that leadership development be future focused, developing the leaders that the company needs tomorrow rather than being solely focused on the workforce or business situation we are in today.

1. Identify differently

First, don’t focus purely on structure. Many companies identify talent and plan development around their current organizational level. But when structures are fluid and reporting lines more ambiguous, we need to cast a wider net and use different approaches to identify leadership potential.

Also, many organizations still promote on technical expertise and not leadership ability or leadership potential. Technical expertise is important, but relationship skills (the ability to engage others in the pursuit of greater business goals) are a greater consideration in selecting future leaders.

In a similar vein, past results are important – but look at how the results were achieved. Were they the result of single-minded hard work that may have left many people burnt out? Or did the leader demonstrate strong inclusive leadership ability and innovation? So look for people orientation and the ability to galvanize teams, not just at those who deliver individual results. In addition, look for leaders who demonstrate future thinking, mapping out an inspiring path for their team based on a personal future vision.

Finally, look for people who bring a broad perspective to the table. Seek those with a proven ability to tap into internal and external resources, who can balance the immediate and future needs, and who can work across teams and groups and not just deliver results inside their own silo.

2. Focus on different skills

We deal with organizations every day that are looking to build leadership strength based on a set of current competencies. But these are often narrowly defined, and based on current reality.

The real focus should be on how we would develop leaders to tackle business challenges that we cannot anticipate. In order to do this, we need to give them the tools not to address today’s problems, but rather to lead teams that can rapidly respond to a changing environment. These would include:

  • Continuous coaching. Leaders need the ability to support and develop team members even as the environment evolves.
  • Including and developing others. Regardless of age, background, gender, personality or tenure on the team, you need leaders who can adapt their leadership style to engage all team members in pursuit of the goal.
  • Innovative thinking. This allows leaders to shift their tactics and be responsive. When plan A fails, they should be able to rapidly define and regroup around plan B, C or D.
  • Ensuring a global perspective. This is an ability that is becoming increasingly important at all levels as even managers who have never left their home state or country need to be comfortable working with and leading remote diverse teams and knowledgeable about everything the global economy has to offer.

3. Train differently

To prepare leaders to be more future focused, we have to shift the way we approach training. Some tips include:

  • Embrace the idea that most development happens on the job. 70/20/10 can be debated, but the essence is correct. Formal learning provides the framework, interacting with peers provides the context and examples, but it is hands-on experience that makes the learning stick and truly tests the ability of the leader to put new skills into practice.
  • Avoid leadership training that is prescriptive. Let leaders find their own way and try their own solutions. These are lessons that are valuable no matter what the current business context may be.
  • Encourage personalization of the experience and learning through self-reflection. What works well for you? Where do you find yourself challenged?
  • Realize the L&D team alone cannot address everyone’s learning needs. Develop a learning culture that can adapt to the changing environment by focusing on leaders and leadership skills that, in turn, develop others. Set the expectation that part of a leader’s role is to develop people on their team.
  • Understand that learning will not necessarily happen in one sitting or one session. Provide leaders with the opportunity to develop their leadership portfolio of experiences and insights. Support ongoing learning with a learning map and many opportunities to put the theory to the test.

In a constantly evolving environment, it is permissible for organizations to reset some of the expectations when it comes to leadership. Smart companies invest in leaders based on potential, not position. They also set the expectation that it is up to the individual leader to learn every day, and develop awareness of their environment, of others and of their own capabilities. Change is inevitable. We can either surf its wave as it prepares to hit the shore or get hobbled in its wake. The key is developing employees who can lead, regardless of the tide.

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