How to Make Your Future Leaders Absolutely Brilliant

Right, lets cut to the chase. Many senior leaders are so pre-occupied by their own endeavours (on being brilliant themselves) that they neglect the needs of their future leaders. Or, if they are interested, there’s a weird reflex that makes them automatically say “I don’t have the time” when we’re discussing developing their own talent. Sound familiar? Yet other leaders are bothered by the idea of leaving a legacy; being the kind of leader who can “grow their own”, and get their future leaders ready for the challenges ahead.

Do you know what? I’m not absolutely sure where I am (personally) on that spectrum. I care about future leaders being able to thrive, and not just survive. But just don’t call it my “legacy”. Those who’ve met me, or have read my blogs, know I hate (not too strong a word, in this case) even the notion of anything soft and fluffy. But I do recognise my responsibility. Here at Henley Business School, we express that as developing “confident leaders and professionals who are able to take a fresh perspective and have the energy, capability and resilience to ensure that they and their organisations are successful”. That explains our tomorrow’s leadership/today’s leadership development global research. We investigated what is driving business now, what issues and opportunities that creates for leaders, and the biggest steps and strides we can make to equip future leaders to lead in that future space. And when so many “younger”/early leaders are being given such enormous responsibility, we should all be feeling the heat from a burning bridge. When we say “today’s” leadership development, we mean exactly that. TODAY. This isn’t a problem we can deal with tomorrow, next week or next year. Future leaders are already experiencing bigger problems than we (Baby Boomers, Gen X in particular) ever did. This needs attention now.
But boy it’s a huge agenda, and I’m reminded that eating an elephant can only be done one way; a bite at a time. Thanks to my colleagues Peter Hawkins and Claire Hewitt, and the brilliantly diverse group, for sharing and building-on the research. So what does leadership development need to look like, to help our future leaders make a better fist of the future – or, put another way, to make them absolutely brilliant when we’re long gone? Here are the three key learning points I took from the day:

Learning no. 1 – Keep looking at Tomorrow’s World – I couldn’t resist this reference, given the BBC is bringing back my favourite childhood TV show! And looking ahead to future shows, if scientists like Stephen Hawking are saying that humans will need to colonise another planet within one hundred years to ensure our survival (Click here for Telegraph article)  then we’ve some serious problems coming. I’m not sure I subscribe to that point of view (maybe I just see a world of opportunity?), but future leaders will find a world with a bigger population, fewer resources, and higher expectations. Today’s senior leaders owe it to future leaders to spend more time looking at what’s coming over the hill (the known)/expected) or around the hill (the unknown/unexpected). If you’re one of those seniors, then think future-back and outside-in. Look outside your usual sphere of influence, and locus of control. Consider what companies in other sectors are doing (being uber-ized?), and see what it means for your business. Follow organisations like Trendwatching. And read “Strategic Foresight” by Patricia Lustig, if you want some better tools and techniques than crystal-ball gazing. Communicate this to your future leaders, so they are better prepared for what the future brings. We also talked about hiring a “Chief Disruption Officer”, to challenge thinking and try new ideas (in a lean start-up and minimum viable product way). Nice idea (although surely disruption is everyone’s job?)…
Learning no. 2 – Change the leadership paradigm – we have to change how we look at leadership, before we can create the right leadership development. In a world of virtual, international and multi-cultural teams, leadership is very different. But are we thinking enough about how that changes the way we do leadership development? This includes moving people from thinking about leading people to orchestrating business ecosystems. Moving from heroic (gung-ho CEO) leadership to collective and collaborative leadership. Promoting purpose-driven leadership that creates value for all stakeholders. But, for me, the most striking change is the need for leadership development to develop partnering and networking skills, internally and externally. Future business problems can only be solved by working together. Build that mindset and those skills into your leadership development. I’ll talk another day about this notion of “corporate introversion”.
Learning no. 3 – Move from IQ and EQ to We-Q – one of the key findings of the research was the inter-connectivity between problems, and the need for people to collaborate to solve business and leadership challenges. This begins by believing in the value of collaboration (not everyone does) and then actually collaborating. That’s not as easy as it sounds, given the competition that exists between functions, regions and leaders; and the silo mentality that often prevails. We expressed this as developing your “we-Q”, i.e. your ability to work together not alone. Here’s a crazy idea – delegate a task to a relationship and not a function. For example, if you are trying to improve relationships with customers, delegate that to the relationship between the Commercial Director and Sales Director, not to a single function. It’s that relationship that will dictate whether the change happens. Get them in the same room, and let them solve the problem together, That’s probably the most obvious, common sense thing I’ve ever said. But I’m still struggling to think of many examples (they’d be counted on the fingers of one hand) where this collaboration has worked naturally and habitually. Simply put, we need leadership development to create the desire and skills to collaborate with colleagues and partners. People don’t have to like each other. They just have to collaborate. And then companies need to think seriously about changing anything that’s disrupting people from working in a cross-functional way (like reward structures).
If you don’t think the world’s changing faster than ever, you’re in denial. And when you realise that leadership development needs to change, don’t just go along for the ride. Grab the problem by the scruff of the neck. Don’t provide predictable modularised “out-of-the-box” training, that ticks boxes but doesn’t deliver results. Instead pick off uber-themes, offer challenge-based learning (focused on solving real business issues), deep immersion training, coaching in systems thinking, as well as the tried and tested approaches like secondments and shadowing. Everyone will need their own personalised (and co-created, meaning neither self-directed or employer-led) learning journey. Maybe that’s your first job for today because, as I’ve said many times, the future will be here sooner than you think…

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