They are driving marketplace focus on customization and the niche and eroding boundaries between public and private, learning and teaching, innovation and execution. At the same time, the growing diversity of the talent pool lends itself to more flexible and customized ways of working and developing talent while eroding boundaries between work and home, men and women, hierarchy and Web.
Given the complex, challenging and unpredictable nature of this 24/7 environment, what competencies will enable leaders to succeed in the years ahead?
1. Leaders must draw on broad-spectrum as well as focused vision. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO and chairman of GE, recently enumerated the company’s new leadership competencies. At the top of the list was “the ability to see around corners” — to anticipate events rather than react to them.
This represents an important shift, for organizations have traditionally privileged and rewarded the ability to block out details perceived as extraneous and lend full attention to the task at hand — known as “focused notice.” However, in a global environment, this is no longer sufficient, demonstrated by the financial crisis of 2008. Many of the organizations that ran into trouble had been led by individuals who made their reputation by being focused like a laser on maximizing the value of inherently flawed financial products. Highly analytical focused notice has its place in organizations, but it is best at analyzing information about the present, not the future. In the years ahead, leaders also will have to develop a capacity for broad-spectrum notice.
2. Leaders must be skilled at leading people with different values. During the past decade, organizations have defined diversity as a matter of demographics, with primary attention paid to gender, race, age and ethnicity. Yet the fact that these categories keep expanding to include new groups has led some organizations into a kind of affinity-group tailspin, slicing and dicing employee groups into ever more minutely defined segments. In addition, organizations are finding that demographic diversity does not necessarily translate into diversity of thought, a key capability for innovation and marketplace agility. Diversity in the years ahead will therefore be increasingly understood as diversity of values.
This is particularly true because talented people today are more likely to define themselves based upon distinction rather than by their group membership. Also, as the distribution of information grows more fragmented and complex, it mirrors and reinforces more divergent viewpoints. As a result, consensus about anything has become more difficult to achieve, both in the larger culture and in organizations. Even such workplace fundamentals as what constitutes an acceptable work ethic or how individuals define and pursue satisfaction on the job are increasingly open to interpretation and debate.
3. Leaders must practice inclusion. Organizations used to be defined by boundaries. Power in organizations tended to reside within a tight core of insiders who made the decisions, while those who executed these decisions had little role in making them and were often viewed as interchangeable parts.
This situation has changed. On one hand, the definition of “stakeholder” has become far more expansive. It now includes customers, clients, suppliers, distributors, investors and their advisors, the local community, the global community and those who absorb the environmental and economic impact of the company’s decisions. This list will become even more expansive in the future. On the other hand, the diffusion of knowledge through networked technologies is also diffusing decision-making power, shifting greater strategic responsibility onto operating units where specialized and embedded knowledge can be put to use.
Only inclusive leaders will be able to take advantage of these changes in the organizational environment. By leading from the center rather than from the top, by leveraging informal power structures rather than seeing them as a threat, and by engaging employees through respect and the power of buy-in, successful leaders will respond to and shape the evolving landscape.