2020 vision - leadership challenges ahead
The Oxford Group
08 January 2020
With the start of not just a new year but also a new decade, it seems the right time to take a moment to take stock and look forward to the year ahead.
The shifting sands of change has been the byword for recent years and life certainly looks set to only keep getting more interesting for organisations and their leaders. With that in mind, we asked our network of leadership experts, consultants and coaches for common themes they’re seeing businesses facing right now, and what they’re preparing for in the future:
Digital transformation has been one of the key drivers of change for organisations in recent years and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future.
The potential it brings is far more wide-reaching than it can initially appear for it is not just about an organisation offering digital products or services. It is about dealing with the fallout from social media which creates more demanding and informed (or sometimes misinformed) consumers as well as its impact on the engagement of employees. Not to mention the chance it offers to reinvent internal processes – simply recreating the status quo digitally misses a golden opportunity to create a more agile and effective organisation.
What does this mean for leaders? They first need to make sure that they themselves are informed and in a position to grab opportunities when they arise – they need to embrace new technology, experiment with it, and recognise when they need to ask for help from those within the business who are more digitally-fluent.
Consumer needs and the competitive environment are rapidly evolving meaning organisational life stages are necessarily shorter than ever before. New consumer markets continue to emerge or grow, representing great opportunities but leaders need to be aware not only of those but also new players and influencers in their existing markets. The way business is being done is changing and sticking to the established rules is not necessarily going to work anymore.
It is important that leaders stay curious – their ability to identify and ask the right questions is now more important than having all the answers. We are all bombarded with information – the trick for leaders is how they sift out what’s important and remain open to new thinking to keep their business relevant.
- The rise of soft skills
The skills that leaders need in the current environment have evolved. The traditional blueprint of the leader being the pinnacle of knowledge and decision-making within an organisation is no more.
Nowadays, the new hard skillset for leaders is what has traditionally been called soft skills, the most important of which is the ability to deal with and make sense of the unknown. They need to be comfortable with ambiguity and supporting others to get comfortable with it too. A leader’s role now is far more about exploring (finding out what you don’t know) than navigating (travelling from here to a known destination).
Alongside this, they need open minds as well as the agility to adapt and learn from those around them and experience. They should also have the humility to expect and welcome more challenge and feedback from others.
- Employee engagement
Organisations are now very aware of the potential role employees can take in shaping their future – leaders should be leveraging their perspective to gain insight into the market and incorporating that into their strategic plans. Giving their people the freedom to input into decision-making will in turn increase engagement and productivity.
Leaders will only achieve this through demonstrating openness – a willingness to listen and to experiment, accepting that also means potentially failing and trying again. By adopting a more partnership-style of leadership it reduces the distance between leaders and their people which some leaders may find hard but it will greatly increase the sense of collective ownership and the performance of the organisation.
- Talent retention
Competition for talent at all levels is high and, particularly in large cities, a lot of organisations are seeing their talent being tempted to move on too quickly, lured by the promise of exciting opportunities. Leaders can help to support talent retention by creating the conditions their people need to thrive, making them the employer everyone wants to work for.
The challenge they have is leading diverse teams and how to make them work well together. By diverse teams we are not just talking about ethnicity, gender, backgrounds or culture (for multinational teams) but also factors like different generations, personality types and individual expectations. Leaders need to bring this whole melting pot together, keeping each person engaged whilst keeping corporate values and culture solid.
- Put your own oxygen mask on first
Leaders have a responsibility to maintain their personal well-being and resilience for without doing this they will not be able to help their team to do the same.
It is important to state that this isn’t just about stress management, although that is an element of it – it is actually about leaders managing their physical, emotional and intellectual resources. For example, ensuring that they have the tools, techniques and logistics to cope with extensive travel or constant meetings.
This is more easily said than done for it requires discipline, self-awareness and investment of time from each leader. It is all too easy to ignore in the face of other more tangible demands on leaders’ attention but doing so helps no-one and risks burnout.
- Psychological safety in the workplace
All employees deserve and need psychologically-safe and inclusive working environments. Leaders play a key role in this not just by creating a positive corporate culture but also by modelling expected behaviour – people soon notice if there is a difference between what is said and what is done in practice and will respond accordingly.
However, it is not just the internal environment that impacts employees’ psychological safety and mental health - many countries around the world are going through political unrest or challenging socioeconomic times at the moment. Whilst leaders cannot control that, they should be aware that this is likely to have an impact on the workplace with their employees potentially stressed and upset by what is going on in their wider world. There is also an increased risk of conflict between colleagues in the office who have different opinions or of inappropriate political comments being made in company forums.
Part of the role of leaders in this position will be to support their employees and find ways for their organisation to navigate the current situation but they also need to be able to see the potential beyond it to create the future that they want.
We have shared some of the challenges we have noticed leaders facing but does this reflect your experiences? We would love to hear from you if you would like to share your thoughts about the year ahead with us.