By Natalie Filatoff
At the intersection of two great waves of change – disruptive technology and the loss of trust in institutions – opportunity knocks. Leaders who embrace true leadership over management can future-proof their organisations by fostering cultures that are open, engaged and responsive to possibility.
In 2016, Maximus researched the state of Australian leadership and the skill sets – strategic thinking, the ability to create conditions for innovation, engagement of employees and acting with integrity – needed to steer companies and the economy to success in a challenging post-mining boom era. The resulting white paper, Why the Traditional Approach to Leadership in Failing Australia, found that “leadership development initiatives are not sufficient for the challenges that managers will face in coming years”.
As we look toward 2019, little has changed, with the majority of organisations and their leaders still mired in the day-to-day challenges of business as usual. And yet, everything has changed. Data-informed marketing is upending industries such as retail and media, artificial intelligence offers to take analytical decision-making off our hands, and the dark side of a power-based leadership system has been exposed. In Australia, trust in responsible use of power (reference #MeToo), in political leaders, and in the trust-dependent financial services industry, is at an all-time low.
On the broader global stage, Australia still needs to diversify its product base, embrace technology while strategically transitioning workforces away from jobs that are being replaced, and identify new global opportunities for our services and skills. The Economic Complexity Index tellingly ranks Australia’s economy 65th out of a possible 122 – making it glaringly clear that complexity is one of the attributes lacking in our economy and leadership thinking.
Although there was a sense of relief when Australia rose two points in IMD’s 2018 World Competitiveness Yearbook rankings, a fillip which edged us back into the top 20, the risk is very real that the country will slip back down again. If we continue to ignore the innovation-related IMD criteria – investment in research and development and retention of talent – it’s sure to happen.
Maximus’ 2018 white paper, Forging Leadership for the Future, is an urgent call to action for organisations and leaders at every level, to apply rigorous ethical standards that arrest the flight of trust from institutions, and take the opportunities that technology offers to develop and apply unique human qualities to the way they work.
PURPOSE AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
A recent report by executive recruitment organisation, Six Degrees Executive – based on a quantitative online survey of 1300 Australian professionals and one-on-one interviews with 35 Australian and international executives – found that only eight per cent of Australians strongly believe that the country’s corporate culture encourages the development of great leaders.
Summarising the results of the report, founder and managing director of Six Degrees, Paul Hallam, says, “Australian workers have told us they respond to integrity and authenticity. They crave outstanding communicators. They want to be inspired by a sense of values and purpose.”
In times of disruption, when traditional approaches to work no longer generate sufficient returns for organisations, when head count is threatened by automation and moves to restructure, employees seek a sense they can contribute to positive outcomes.
“Uncertainty is perceived as an attack on the known rules of survival and emotional prosperity. Under these conditions, your employee culture is unusually receptive to inspiration – to leadership,” writes renowned culture expert Stan Slap in his book Under the Hood.
The most important quality of future-ready leaders is the ability to communicate and demonstrate a clear sense of purpose, says Dr Nora Koslowski, Principal Consultant at Maximus. “In a personal sense, that means knowing what’s important to you, and the contribution you want to make in your career and as a human being.”
Leaders should also be able to articulate the purpose of their organisation as an aspirational reason for being, that inspires stakeholders to realise its aims.
Society and employees are demanding change from organisations when assessing prospective employment. Increasingly, people want to work for organisations that provide a benefit to the world around them. They’re also informed. Job satisfaction is no longer considered by financial success alone, or the quality of a company’s products and services, but on their social impact as well. The message is that ethical practices matter. Businesses need to be the drivers of that change and leaders have to be ready to deliver it.
“The most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed, to advance a vision or an idea or a project that’s bigger than ‘me’.”
Adam Grant, Author and Professor at Wharton Business School
BEYOND THE HIERARCHY
Organisational trends over recent years have moved toward a more team-based approach, taking momentum away from hierarchies.
These traditional structures are not only inflexible, but often impenetrable to a diversity of ideas. They can also become a barrier to transparency and clarity of purpose. Along with the crumbling of hierarchies comes the demise of the omnipotent leader and many of the isolating trappings that come with that success.
“Years ago, if people rose through the ranks to a position of authority and achieved some of the attendant privileges, they were admired – others aspired to do the same,” observes Vanessa Gavan, founder and Managing Director of Maximus. “Now I think the CEO who drives around in a Maserati is no longer seen as an inspiration. People look to leaders who are more connected and authentic.”
Leaders who take the time to reflect on their attitudes and strengths and tap into their authenticity are better equipped to engage with others. Leadership interaction, communication and modelling of values and behaviours are vital for weaving individual team efforts into the overall purposeful fabric of each organisation, even as teams themselves are increasingly empowered to plan and direct their own work.
As recognised by Daniel Pink, author of the influential book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, workers crave autonomy, mastery and purpose. This casts the leader in the role, not of planner, organiser and controller, but rather of coach, enabler and provider of meaningful context for work.
Inherent in this new model of power is a sense of selflessness and a desire to drive, not a status symbol, but collective success.
Adam Grant, professor at Wharton business school in the US and author of bestselling books such as Give and Take, last year said on CNBC’s Make It channel, that, “The most meaningful way to succeed is to help other people succeed, to advance a vision or an idea or a project that’s bigger than ‘me’. Leaders who put other people first end up inspiring a different kind of effort, a different level of motivation and a greater sense of belonging.”
BE CURIOUS, NOT AFRAID
Koslowski suggests that cultivating genuine curiosity and empathy will help leaders nurture the diverse teams needed to innovate and tackle future challenges. “It can be uncomfortable to surround yourself with people who are not like you,” she says, but cabals of the like-minded must disperse in the face of irrefutable evidence that problem-solving is increased when ideas come from different perspectives. Having the curiosity to learn about and learn from talented team members of different ethnicities, genders, backgrounds and belief systems helps leaders to overcome discomfort and to understand what each team member brings to the table.
Just as curiosity can sideline fear of difference, leaders can use it to re-frame their response to change, to be open rather than apprehensive, interested rather than defensive. A future-ready mindset is eager to continually learn, to explore what’s happening in a variety of industries, to delve into how global markets are evolving. Learning doesn’t have to be formal, says Koslowski, but can include voluntourism, listening to podcast series on topics that interest you or trying your hand at coding for Alexa, Amazon’s cloud- based voice service (by 2020 more than one-third of all of our computing interactions will be voice based).
48% of Australian professionals rate creativity among the most important traits of future leaders
“Curiosity is important for embracing the future of work, technology and organisations. Only leaders who are curious enough to learn and develop will be the leaders of our future,” concludes Koslowski.
The opportunity, as we prepare to responsibly cede analysis and management tasks that can be automated to computers and integrate robotic systems powered by artificial intelligence into the corporate environment, is to amplify the human qualities of leadership.
Leaders of the future will be comfortable with uncertainty, curious in the face of the unknown. They will imbue diverse teams with mutual respect, and motivate them with a clear sense of purpose, helping them perform to their highest potential. Bringing authenticity and moral integrity to all their interactions, they will renew public trust in organisations and employee faith in what it means to be a leader.
FROM THE TOP
“Creating the conditions for innovation – rather than being the innovator – and building talent to set the business up for future success, is increasingly crucial.”
Vanessa Gavan, Founder and Managing Director of Maximus
HOW TO RECOGNISE A FUTURE LEADER
“One way of identifying the next generation of leaders is to think about who in the organisation is creating an impact beyond themselves. Who is making other lives more meaningful? That’s often how you can tell that someone is destined for a leadership path.”
Dr Nora Koslowski, Principal Consultant at Maximus
This article was originally published in the 2nd edition of M Magazine, an exclusive print magazine aimed at inspiring and driving change through Australia’s executives and heads of HR.