At the turn of the 20th century, America’s first billionaire John D Rockefeller said, “Good management consists in showing average people how to do the work of superior people”.
Our new research ‘Learning to Lead in the 21st Century’ shows this to be truer now than ever before.
Having surveyed 500 business leaders about what they wish they had known ten years ago, by far the most popular response was the importance of developing greater relational skills. The reason? Close, open teams evolve faster as they learn more effectively. This builds better businesses.
Digging into the detail, softer interpersonal skills such as relationship building, listening, influencing others and conflict resolution were seen as twice as important as the next nearest management trait, leading others.
The value of this transparent and open team dynamic was also not limited by demographic. Rather, it was a dominant theme regardless of age, gender or location – underlying the ubiquity of its value. Something which, in a diverse global business environment, must be seized upon.
Communication was seen to be the most desirable relational skill. In fact, it ‘was considered a tool of emotional intelligence within the workplace, a facilitator of honest, interpersonal relationships with others, a means to innovate and share ideas collectively, as well as a pivotal way to communicate change, resolve conflict and manage difficult situations.’
As one respondent put it the value lies in, ‘Authentic discussions with individuals that get to the root of issues. Nipping things in the bud. Not waiting until they develop into problems.’
The pragmatic ability of relational skills to help people solve problems faster came through strongly as a theme. It seems this is emerging in response to a higher paced and more disrupted business environment, the ‘move fast and break things’ culture as defined by Mark Zuckerberg.
This is also happening at a time when management teams are getting younger, so not only do business leaders need to be more agile, they must get there faster.
The research points towards the development of what Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck calls a ‘growth mindset’. This perspective “cultivates a skillset that enables individuals to cope with pressures and adversity faced by today’s leaders through promoting cognitive agility. Possessing a growth mindset describes individuals who are interested in continual learning and believe that one’s ability is not fixed.”
Looking at our data, the best way to encourage this kind of continual learning is through experience.
Of those questioned, by far and away the most valuable route to skills development highlighted was learning on the job, or through other people. Five times more people identified this as their number one source of skills as the next nearest choice.
An important aspect of this type of learning is not just focussing on successes, but also the experience gained through mistakes and adversity.
A raft of studies have highlighted the motivating factors of failures, forcing participants to question previous assumptions to stop similar errors occurring. This tallied with the findings of our research, which showed those in junior roles said failure was the defining catalyst in skills development. Those at the very top also said they had been shaped by negative life events, with CEOs and MDs citing issues such as illness, recession and redundancy as the factors that have taught them the most.
This ties directly into the earlier findings about the importance of relational skills. Only by creating an open and communicative environment can businesses facilitate the discussion of topics such as this, which might otherwise be seen as taboo or simply not communicated.
There are a number of practical applications to be drawn from Learning to Lead in the 21st Century.
Firstly, relational skills development should be a offered to all employees from the very start of their careers. It is important and must be invested in. Secondly, opportunities for on the job learning should be built into the heart of workflows. This means coercing teams to reflect in a collective manner, with all levels sharing successes and failures. Finally, senior management need to create a culture of learning built on psychological safety, trust and respect. Being tolerant of failure will support vital risk taking.
Hopefully, by implementing these relatively simple pieces of advice, organisations can harness the very real value in bringing teams closer together. A culture that empowers people to learn can be one of the most powerful defences against an uncertain and accelerating business backdrop. Sharing is not only caring, it is also vital to success.