I spend a lot of time thinking about ‘impossible problems’ that people face in business, and how to overcome them. What is the best way that we, as leaders in our organisations, can evolve and change to meet the challenges of the 21st century?

I recently heard an anecdote about a large international pharmaceutical firm that was struggling to meet seemingly impossible challenges. They had made a long term commitment to developing their internal leadership program, but it was failing to deliver any meaningful results.

They were sending staff into the program with high expectations, but it was not meeting their needs. In fact, almost immediately they began to notice a downward trajectory in many of their key metrics! Promotion rates, performance scores and engagement were all trending downward. After all of the time and effort that they had put into this new program, it actually seemed to be causing more problems, rather than fixing them.

But was this failure actually about the program they designed, or was it about the changing world outside of the program? They had created a perfect plan for the world of ten years ago, but with a changing world comes an ever present need to address real time business challenges.

Does this ring true? Are you prepared and ready to meet the needs of the future and develop leaders within your firm today who will be effective tomorrow?

Your leadership training and ideas need to constantly evolve.

Many people think of leadership training and ideologies as ‘evergreen’ – stable and static no matter what the contest or circumstance. Why bother evolving – what is the point? This is a huge error in thinking.

Effective leadership has developed dramatically in the past ten years, and will continue to do so. Some key recent changes that you need to address include:

  • Uncertainty is the new norm. The impacts of globalisation, and technology are creating massive shifts in how we live and work. Businesses are having to create entirely new models to adjust to the needs of their customers. This is changing the leadership paradigm, away from vertical control to horizontal collaboration.   
  • Teams are on the rise. Organisational restructure has taken over from Leadership Development as the number 1 concern of CEOs. Creating teams to agilely respond to problems or create new customer propositions is seen as key to success. Such teams can only operate in an environment of high trust. This makes accountability and measurement difficult as the relationship between inputs and outputs is no longer a simple Newtonian one.
  • Employees want more – As digital natives become the norm amongst employees, organisations need to respond to the needs of the employee which have shifted away from their parents’ mantra of “job for life.” Having grown up with rapid access to information, employees are more concerned with organisational reputation, and see progression less as a result of being diligent and waiting for a tap on the shoulder, but more of discovering their own path in a world where anyone can lead. Leadership development needs to reflect this distributed world.
  • Culture is key – Engagement is a measure of sentiment towards the organisation. Successful organisations need to foster belonging. This is a deeper, emotional connection that goes way beyond the consistency offered by a set of values. Finding ways for employees to identify their own purpose, and aligning it to that of the organisation is key. Leadership development can play a role in this if it incorporates some element of delivering social value external to the organisation.

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Atholl Duncan’s CityAM article reflecting on the effects of the lockdown on business and the book he has written about it.