What Will It Take To Be a Successful Leader In the New Decade?

LS International

Happy New Year!

The beginning of a year is a good time to look at how the journey ahead might be different and think about how we need to adapt. This year heralds not only the beginning of a new decade, but also follows one of the decades were changes have been the only stable thing regarding business worldwide. Indications are that the frenetic, and often unpredictable, pace of change will only continue in the 2020s.

As an international executive search firm, we are often asked to head hunt specific individuals or conduct targeted searches for candidates with “leadership capabilities”. This has always been a fascinating task because the notion of “leadership” itself has changed over time. At the turn of the century, Jack Welch of GE was arguably one of the most iconic- and successful- business leaders globally. And yet, the approaches that made him so successful then are now raising eyebrows.

Clearly, what leaders needed back then is different from what they need now. This is obvious because “leadership” is always in the context of the organization, its business model, its people, culture, and what needs to be done to keep the growth engine humming sustainably. The rest of this article is my view of key competencies that leaders must acquire and hone to be able to make their mark in the decade ahead.

Accountability: Leaders must learn to be accountable for their decisions, communications and strategies. This means ensuring that they listen to different views with an open mind before making choices. And once they make the best decision given the circumstances, they must follow through by sharing credit for success and accepting responsibility for failure. Nobody is 100% failure-proof: the key is to learn from the experience and move forward with a sense of resilience and resolve.

Innovation-enablers: Innovations can be big or small and can be the result of ideas arising from any corner of the organization as well as other businesses, influential people or society overall. Leaders must consciously be open to such ideas. This in turn means listening more at meetings, encouraging people to challenge the status quo, tracking trends not just within the industry but also across industries (customers and consumers may soon start to expect similar things from your industry as well). It’s also about creating buy-in and higher levels of collaboration within the organization, transcending silos created by business architecture, geography, culture or M&A.

Tech savvy: Technology has become so pervasive and embedded into business (and indeed, daily life) that leaders can no longer take cover under ignorance of “tech stuff”. In fact, what will distinguish successful leaders from others is their ability to think about how various technologies can be integrated into their business to drive employee productivity and customer centricity while also minimizing environmental damage and promoting social benefits (e.g. avoiding exploitative labour, encouraging responsible farming etc.). Leaders must be able to foster similar thinking across the company and form small teams to quickly ideate, iterate and implement projects that enhance customer experience/impact. As has often been said, an “agile” or “nimble” mindset is needed.

Consciousness: Leaders will need to be more conscious of- not just the company’s “profits” (financial performance), but also about its business impact on “people” and the planet (social and ecological impact). Consciousness starts with leaders being self-aware and deliberate about the choices they make and the social biases they carry. Traditionally, business decisions were made only on the basis of financial impact; but going forward, decisions may need to be made that are financially sub-optimal but contribute to the two the other social and environmental elements. This requires leaders to be always wearing all three hats and keeping in mind even those stakeholders who are not immediately visible within the organization.

Another part of being a conscious leader is to always question assumptions. This also ties in with the earlier points because a healthy curiosity allows status quo to be challenged and for minds to think about different (and possibly better ways) of doing things. This helps in building an innovation mindset as well as promote a culture of accountability within the organization not just by setting the right goals but also by ensuring that the right talent is hired and promoted.

Change anticipators and managers: 84% of respondents in a Forbes Insights survey view CEOs as “champions of change” (source). This should not be surprising in the least, because a key role of leaders has always been to envision the future and navigate the organization through turbulent waters. Just that the current age will test this capability far more than before because change is even more rapid and harder to anticipate. Those leaders who can anticipate change better than others and prepare their organizations to respond to that change will stand out in the decade ahead. Sharpening this competence means being able to sense changes arising from multiple sources and formulate responses. This “sense and respond” competency is built on multiple skills, including expansion of personal knowledge through extensive reading and regular conversations with experts, positing what-if scenarios (this includes competitor responses) and evaluating their associated probabilities.

Anticipating change alone is not enough; leaders must be adept at managing it too. This calls for building buy-in deftly by encouraging people and teams to think more like entrepreneurs and reward risk-taking that involves going beyond the ordinary. Not all such efforts will succeed- so leaders must communicate that what is being rewarded is not “failure” but the courage and initiative shown by people to take calculated risks. Of course, leaders must put in place governance measures so that purely maverick actions are not the norm, while at the same time, “skunkworks” are not necessarily seen as a bad thing.

Communicators and networkers par excellence: If there is one common capability that acts as a thread that ties all the preceding 5 competencies, it is the ability to communicate and network. Effective leaders have always been good communicators; what’s perhaps different in the decade ahead is that they must learn to shape their communication in ways that resonate well with a diverse pot pourri of employees comprising multiple generations (age groups), more women, minorities, nationalities, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity etc. Growing segments of the workforce will be passionate about causes such as sustainability or social justice. Leaders must be able to engage with these stakeholders by demonstrating how the company’s strategies and policies.

In the coming decade, networking will be a critical competency for leaders. The ability to build bridges not just within the organization but also forge alliances with external organizations (including partners, competitors, regulators) etc. will be vital. Working with start-ups on critical pieces may help drive up the overall agility of the business- but to do so will need the ability to think, speak and act like young entrepreneurs.

Naturally, we as an international executive search firm, our search process will consciously focus on the above competencies when we look for the right candidates in response to our client mandates. And when we spot candidates with these competencies, we will look to proactively pitch them to clients who we know will benefit by hiring such talent.

Are there any other competencies that you see as being just as critical to leaders of the 2020s? Or do you have a different point of view about what we have said?

Either way, we’d love to hear your views, so please do write into: paula@ls-international.com.