Leadership Skills for a New Age
  • Leadership

Leadership Skills for a New Age

The digital revolution, diverse global workforces, and Gen Y aspirations challenge how leaders lead today


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Other than in the armed services, few people actually get any formal leadership training early in their careers. Typically, executives with functional skills move up to leadership without a clear grasp of the complex skills required to lead in a modern organization.

The difficulty executives have in adapting to leadership is exacerbated by the fact that change – societal, technological, and in the business environment – is transforming organizational culture and the nature of leadership itself.

Jim Fisher, professor emeritus and a former vice-dean of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Rose Patten, executive-in-residence at the Rotman School and special advisor to the CEO of BMO Financial Group, lead Rotman's Executive Leadership Program. In this recent article they discuss the leadership skills needed to succeed in a new age:

What does leading mean in a diverse, globalized workforce that must be engaged with a broad, corporate vision, yet in a way that fits with employees' local cultures, values and expectations?

What does leadership look like in an organization where aging baby boomers, accustomed to a top-down management style, are working with feedback-hungry ‘millennials’, eager to contribute, so long as it is to work they care about?

How does leadership shift to deal with a business environment where rapid technological change has exponentially shortened the shelf life of products and processes, and where time does not wait for good ideas – or problems that need fixing – to go up and down the chain of command?

These may be familiar scenarios for those already in leadership positions. But there is no question that they pose enormous challenges, even for experienced leaders. The world of work has fundamentally changed and because of it, leadership has never been more important, or more difficult. The old models of ‘command and control’, and management having all the answers, are no longer up to the task. And there has never been a greater need to develop leadership at every level of the organization.

"I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers," Ralph Nader once said. Whatever you think of Nader's politics, his observation strikes at the heart of what leaders of all stripes are now required to do. Besides inspiring, motivating and closely aligning what may be a diverse workforce with an overarching direction, today's leaders must also give employees the tools to take ownership of their corner of the organization, and in turn lead others.

This is what Four Seasons Hotels founder Issy Sharp did when he engaged employees with his vision of using service to make Four Seasons the number one luxury hotel and resort operator in the world. To do that, frontline workers across the globe were empowered with the ability to take charge and make decisions as needed, guided by Sharp's ‘Golden Rule’ philosophy, which applied to employees and customers alike. Managers were to act less like bosses and more like mentors. Today, the luxury brand operates more than 90 hotels worldwide and the Golden Rule remains a fundamental principle of its successful service culture.

Similar practices of engaging and empowering workers have been found at Starbucks and sandwich shop chain Pret a Manger. Starbucks calls its store employees ‘partners’. Last October the company brought 10,000 of them, mostly store managers, to Houston, Texas. for a three-day interactive Global Leadership Conference. The aim was to educate, but also to inspire and reinforce the importance of leadership throughout the organization.

Pret a Manger, with more than 300 stores in Britain, the U.S., France and Hong Kong, has become a booming success by inspiring its workforce to provide quick yet friendly, personalized service through a strong emphasis on teamwork. Store teams have a say in approving new hires and receive team bonuses following positive assessments by ‘mystery shoppers’. Leadership's role is a combination of maintaining tight alignment with company processes and attitudes, as well as motivating individual workers, developing employee engagement, initiative, and building strong, collaborative teams. That's no easy feat in a business where the annual employee turnover rate elsewhere can top 300 to 400 per cent. At Pret a Manger, it's 60 per cent.

We know these examples are not the rule at every workplace. But they illustrate the opportunity, and challenge, of leading today. The leader must engage and energize the workforce through extensive local empowerment, while at the same time keeping close control of the direction and critical points of the enterprise's competitive advantage. This is the classical ‘loose/tight’ paradox in a fast-moving business environment with a diverse and demanding workforce.

Few of us are naturally gifted with the complex set of leadership skills this requires. Clarity on the elements of leadership, along with a significant adaptive capacity, the ability to collaborate, give more effective feedback more frequently, to mobilize diverse work groups with different aspirations and needs, and to self-reflect on one's strengths, weaknesses, and their impacts are the skills needed by today's leaders.

Just as frontline staff benefit from supportive coaching and education, so too can those who lead them. The time is now for leaders to reinvent themselves, and turn the challenges they face into invigorating opportunities to think and work more creatively than ever before.

Jim Fisher and Rose Patten lead Rotman's Executive Leadership Program, which is being run from 8 May 2017.

Rotman School of Management is Canada’s leading business school and has Canada’s largest group of management faculty. It is home to some of the most innovative research institutes in the world

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