Has it really been twenty years since we were celebrating a new Millennium? Depending on your perspective, that milestone might seem like yesterday or an age away — given the pace of change, it can feel like both. Across societies worldwide there’s a cultural tradition of acknowledging significant anniversaries and using these as a time to reflect on the past and set new goals. And so, as we enter the third decade of the century, it’s perhaps an appropriate moment to consider the road we’ve travelled and the forces and challenges that are likely to lie ahead.
From a leadership perspective, looking back on the last twenty years, the landscape is in many respects still recognizable — the basics of balanced analytical judgement, good people skills, team building and empowerment are little different, if probably more nuanced. But the changes wrought by technology, increasing globalization, public sentiment and the sheer improvements to our understanding of how we best work together — have inexorably transformed the way organizations navigate their routes to success.
My chief interest lies in the impact these developments — and many others — will have on the demands of senior leadership in the decade ahead. Of course, cultural trends don’t fit neatly into ten-year cycles, but for the sake of convenience — and with a heavy caveat that ‘futurology’ is out of date the moment it’s voiced- here are my thoughts on some the issues that may most significantly impact the leadership agenda over the next ten years.
The idea of organizational purpose has been gaining ground for some time. It’s understood that businesses must make a profit to survive, but beyond this there lies an increasingly powerful sentiment that organizations need to play a clearer and more positive role, not only for their direct stakeholders but also in wider society. The growing B Corp movement , which accredits businesses on social and environmental factors, has to date been seen as somewhat ‘alternative’ — but its core message, which envisions business as a force for good while campaigning for a more balanced assessment of positive impacts than profit alone, is increasingly influencing mainstream thinking. Evidence shows that organizations founded on strong social values have more engaged colleagues, attract talent at less cost and enjoy stronger customer relations and brand reputations. Leadership in the next decade will require greater attention to these issues, not as a requisite of political correctness, but as a means to drive performance.
No organization of size can ignore sustainability in the coming decade. From an environmental perspective, the pressures are literally rapidly warming up — and with them a need for greater vision and bolder solutions. Pressure groups demanding targets that would appear, by conventional standards, to be unachievable and unrealistic, are nonetheless impacting public sentiment and with that shaping the policy and legislative agendas. The challenge for many leaders will be that adopting a ‘road to Damascus’ eco-conversion will be as impractical as continuing to ignore the underlying realities. My expectation is that a combination of technological solutions and ever more stringent legislation (particularly to ensure level playing fields) will help — but, regardless of the detail, it is clear that we will require leaders to step up with urgency and place these issues at the center of our planning.
The last two decades have seen an unprecedented increase in the scope of corporate reporting. Financial performance, though remaining pre-eminent, is now only one among many of the measures that organizations must account for: gender diversity, pay ratios, executive incentives, environmental emissions, health & safety… This wider assessment of organizational competence will only increase, as will the transparency of data comparison between organizations.
To some extent, what we have seen is a shift to ‘compliance reporting’, by which organizations have sought to meet the formal requirements but then limited further comment. I sense is that we will see the pendulum swing the other way, with a greater demand for leaders to provide more detailed narratives that are answerable to (and tested by) the ever-increasing transparency of the data. Accountability and transparency go hand in hand, so we should expect leaders to be more answerable to their stakeholders than ever before.
One thing that isn’t going to happen is life becoming simpler. Complexity will necessarily increase as a consequence of the challenges above, and it’s as true as ever that ‘ what got us to here, will not take us to where we need to go’. In this environment, leadership that’s focused on a single individual, however charismatic or talented, will not be sufficient — and even a united senior team is unlikely to deliver the transformational change that some organizations will require. The most successful companies already devolve decision making, but simply segmenting responsibility (by, for example, allocating Values to HR or Efficiencies to Operations) will also not be enough. As complexity increases the role of leadership must shift even further from a focus on decision making and control, to that of engendering a collective ownership of direction and priorities. In short, leadership will increasingly be about demonstrably living the organization’s collective values and goals as much as setting them.
The average lifespan of a business is shortening — it’s currently somewhere around 10 years — and most of those long-standing companies that continue to thrive do so by continual adaptation if not entire reinvention. We all know that the last decade has hit the retail sector particularly hard but arguably greater and more fundamental challenges lie ahead for others — consider the challenges facing the leaders in say, heavy engineering, hi-tech manufacturing, distribution, combustible engine manufacturing…
For many businesses — be they start-ups or global giants — the next decade is likely to involve some truly critical calls. Leaders will need to listen, to delegate, to set goals — all that we have considered so far — but they must also have courage, since many of the key decisions will require acting on beliefs in the absence of certainty. The word courage has its origins in the old French and Latin words for ‘heart’ or ‘seat of our feelings’ — and in that sense, it is subtly different to bravery or resolve. These qualities will be helpful too, for boldness and determination are how we must put our beliefs into practice, and acting together, they will be as fundamental to success as any analysis or epiphany.
I was tempted to title this last section ‘fun’, for enjoyment in the task is surely essential in any leader, whatever their era. But in zest I am hinting at something more. For if we bring energy and enthusiasm to the mix — ideally in a manner that’s infectious to others — then what’s daunting becomes exciting; what seems an obstacle becomes an opportunity — and thereby all the more achievable.
Leaders must not fear the challenges of the next ten years — rather, they should see them as a golden chance: unique, inspiring and seminal to our futures. Leadership in this context is a privilege and remembering as much, every time we turn up for our colleagues or ourselves, is a challenge we should all look forward too.
Happy new year — and here’s to a Roaring Twenties!