Many business studies in recent years have reached the same conclusion: the training and education strategies used to develop past generations of business leaders won’t be effective in a 21st-century environment marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
What’s more, our recent research shows, those previous strategies weren’t necessarily effective in the past either. By questioning over 500 current business leaders across a wide range of demographics, we found that many wish they had learned different skills earlier in their careers. And they reported gaining some of their most valuable work-related lessons and experience outside of traditional business learning channels.
Our research reached several key conclusions:
- Relational skills such as teamwork and relationship building are critical.
- Learning on the job is a vital form of education, and failure can also be a great teacher.
- Clarity around knowledge and expertise is important.
- Future success depends on the ability to adapt to new technologies.
- To become leaders, people must first develop a growth mindset.
- Effective development must cater for all needs and styles.
“The need for leadership development has never been more urgent,” the University of Toronto’s Mihnea Moldoveanu and Harvard Business School’s Das Narayandas write in the March-April 2019 issue of the Harvard Business Review. “Companies of all sorts realize… they need leadership skills and organizational capabilities different from those that helped them succeed in the past. There is also a growing recognition that leadership development should not be restricted to the few who are in or close to the C-suite.”
Researchers Paul J. H. Schoemaker, Sohvi Heaton and David Teece point to how the U.S. military was forced to adapt to a radically different conflict environment after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In a similar way, they note, businesses in recent years “have seen the ending of a period of relative stability, in which computers improved like clockwork, peaceful trade relations could be taken for granted, and the dominance of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economies appeared unassailable”.
In our online survey of 500-plus business leaders, respondents told us they wished earlier development had provided them with the skills they find most useful at work today. These included good communication and relationship skills, delegation and management skills, emotional intelligence, technical skills and confidence. They said they learned the importance of such skills through on-the-job experience, failure, training and feedback, use of technology and major life events.
They also said they believed they needed more technical knowledge, training, organisational understanding and leadership/communication/negotiation skills to advance in their current career path.
Helping current leaders achieve such goals – and cultivating the next generation of business leaders with similar abilities to achieve – requires changing leadership and culture to enable agile transformation, according to an October 2018 McKinsey & Company report on the new capabilities needed to build 21st-century organisations. In the report, Bart Schlatmann, former COO of ING Netherlands, states, “Culture is perhaps the most important element of this sort of change effort. We have spent an enormous amount of energy and leadership time trying to role model the sort of behavior—ownership, empowerment, customer centricity—that is appropriate in an agile culture.”
Our research suggests that organisations can change their culture and foster a new style of leadership by doing the following:
1 Provide relational skills development to everyone - In today’s newer, flatter organisational structures, employees of all kinds – not just potential C-suite candidates – need strong communication, teamwork and networking skills
2 Encourage on-the-job learning - Look for opportunities to offer people new responsibilities, challenges and stretch assignments.
3 Create a learning culture where it’s safe to fail. Experimentation and practice – and the ability to apply lessons learned from failure – enable people to grow and develop leadership capabilities.
4 Ensure leaders are clear about their roles. And be sure they are equipped with the skills they need. Uncertainty threatens confidence.
5 Make sure leaders have relevant knowledge about new technologies. While no one can master it all, leaders should feel confident they understand how technology impacts the business.
6 Encourage a growth mindset. This means being open, curious and receptive to developing new skills.
7 Tailor development to your particular needs. These needs can vary by developing leaders’ organisational level, age, gender, region and language.
8 Make regular feedback, mentoring and coaching a habit. Compared to one-off seminars or formal courses, such on-the-job development is enormously valuable – across the entire employee body.