Leading in a Brave New World

Leading in a Brave New World

22 Sep 17 4mins Jon Midmer


What are the most critical skills that the leaders of tomorrow must have? And how should the organisations they lead be structured? These two questions have been exercising my mind this week following two hugely enjoyable discussions with forward-thinking founders of high-growth businesses on the future make-up of their top teams.

Change demands creativity

The backdrop against which we should ponder these issues was neatly summed up in an impassioned email to me the other day by the global digital leader of one of the world’s largest retailers: “The last generation of leaders built brilliant companies and business models. But these models are out of date, the world has fundamentally changed and we are now in the middle of unprecedented change. In the eye of the storm, the business models of the future and the job descriptions of their leaders don't yet exist. We are in an entrepreneurial phase of discovery and reinvention, and no one knows what the winning formula is. All we have is ambiguity, unclear rules, emerging business models, new behaviors and changing technology as societies’ wants and needs are re-defined and a new world order shapes around us.”

To chart a course through this uncertainty, I believe one of the key skills the leaders of tomorrow will need is creativity. Not in the artistic sense, but in the sense of coming up with new ways of solving the problems bedevilling not only their business but also their industry. If you can’t do this as a leader, there will be others who can, and have. Shortlists for corporate and non-corporate roles alike are increasingly likely to feature former founders. Whereas once corporations and even some private equity houses were wary of hiring creative types as they were considered too maverick, hiring them has become not just attractive, but sometimes essential to survive in a world where disruption is the new normal. If the only constant is change, being able to stay one step ahead through creativity becomes a key competence of the leaders of tomorrow. And creativity does not just apply to changing the consumer proposition, it also has to do with how an organisation is structured and the culture is disseminated to employees.

Radical action required

Organisations will have to take an increasingly radical look at themselves. From everything I’ve seen, heard and read, it’s completely possible that we will start encountering “organisational zero-based budgeting”. By this, I mean that entire departments will have to justify their existence to the CEO and CFO on an annual basis. Furthermore, medium-value functions once populated by generalists will be replaced (if they haven’t already) by mission-critical, project teams composed of hyper-specialists. Consequently, jobs will have shorter shelf lives and, as missions are completed, they will simply stop. At the same time, there will be many newly-created jobs, the skills for which will be determined immediately before they are staffed. 

Interestingly, in the last year alone I have placed more people in newly-created jobs (many with new job titles) than at any point in my career. These have included a global COO who did not come from what one might term a traditional operational background; a CMO who came up the tech route; and a VP of HR who had predominantly worked in operations and marketing. Meanwhile, in a drive to hire the best talent in what is becoming an increasingly candidate-driven market (the best candidates are receiving 10+ approaches a week) and given a greater acceptance of remote working, the locations of jobs are increasingly up for discussion. We’re not just talking about being flexible on the city, but the country and even the continent.

A new breed of leader

As we face such unprecedented tumult, now more than ever employees want to feel led and experience an almost tribal sense of belonging. With remote working on the rise, off-site meetings go from being nice-to-haves to must-haves, as they are the only time when staff ever truly come together. I don’t have any research to back this up, but I sense that we’ve also moved on a long way, as one global Chief Human Resources Officer put it to me recently, from the “aloof, larger-than-life, golf-playing CEO of the 1990s and 2000s”, to a new breed of leader who is happy with being openly more introverted and vulnerable, while being no less courageous. The leader of a highly successful, tech-led US travel company this week told me with great pride that he is a self-proclaimed geek, his organisation celebrates geekiness and his c-suite of the future must embrace this too!

In the rapidly-changing, often virtual world we already inhabit, there is a need for creative leaders, agile organisations, and a need for both to infuse employees with vision and purpose. In the process, the employer-employee psychological contract will strengthen, no matter how fleeting an employee’s stay with you. Finally, while the challenges faced by the leaders, organisations and employees of today and tomorrow are hugely challenging, they’re also liberating. To quote the global digital leader once more: “Business is fun again! The gloves are off. No rules apply… I genuinely wish I was 10 years younger!”