Future Ready Leadership

How to flourish in the 2020s by cultivating a culture of curiosity and learning

To say the last few years have not been easy is a gross understatement. An array of contemporaneous world events have thrown many businesses into a commercial crisis, with a long term impact on their ability to serve their customers and earn the revenues needed to pay their employees as well as satisfy shareholders and investors. However, many businesses have shown incredible ingenuity and agility, adapting at impressive speed in order to keep their businesses alive and safeguard jobs. 

Successful businesses have been led by leaders who have engaged their people by asking them ‘What can we do?’. They have asked questions, gathered information, been open to new and often quite radical ideas and acted decisively. They have had to quickly learn to think differently and do things differently. In this article we will argue that these qualities, and more, will be needed across the coming decade and that the success of future business leaders will lie in their ability to cultivate a learning culture within their organisation with curiosity sitting firmly at its heart. We will also share tips on how you might start leveraging these.

For curiosity to translate into effective learning, achievement, and business results, it needs some direction. The following three questions are a good place to start: 

  1. What is happening in the world that could present my business with significant challenges or opportunities?
  2. What innovations would help us deliver a better service to our customers?
  3. What can I do to provide value to the business and those around me?

Sources of change in the 2020s

The pandemic, quickly followed by high inflation and energy prices, pushed many businesses into short term survival mode. The long term success of businesses will depend not just on their ability to survive the economic impact of unexpected national or global events, but in the ability of their leaders to recognise and respond to a wide range of emerging external forces that will require considerable change within organisations across every sector.

Changes to trade agreements, regional conflicts, supply chain issues, weak productivity, the rise of artificial intelligence, a growing global culture of mistrust, a shift towards nationalistic concerns, an environmental crisis, a talent shortage (despite high rates of unemployment and underemployment), and a higher than ever numbers of older workers are just some of the factors impacting businesses today.

For business leaders that list might look daunting, however, despite that challenging backdrop, there are also many new opportunities, not least when it comes to technology. Although there are many questions surrounding AI and the benefits versus threats that it will bring us, we have seen rapid advancements over the last decade (resulting in functionality such as online payments, self-service apps, communication via social media, process automation, cloud-based storage, etc) which will provide a platform for even faster and more radical development moving through the 2020s and beyond. This will enable increasingly global customer reach; algorithms will become even smarter at profiling customers and targeting advertising; virtual and remote working will continue to be aided by faster broad band and advancing software; and increased automation will boost productivity and product quality. 

Future focused leaders know how important it is to maintain a good level of knowledge about potential external influences and advancements, both in their industry sector and more widely. 

Tip 1: Involve your team in considering the ‘What if..?’ questions relating to various scenarios. Try using a strategic analysis tool like the PESTLE (a framework for assessing Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal/regulatory and Environmental factors) to prompt discussion about potential future events and scenarios that might impact your business model and proposition.

Curiosity and Optimism

By demonstrating curiosity and asking questions about likely future trends, leaders will uncover a wide range of information that will support their future planning activities. Future leaders don’t need to be experts in every single area but, having curiosity and being interested and well informed will help them understand the implications and know which thought leaders and subject matter experts to call on to help turn potential threats and challenges into exciting new opportunities. Curiosity coupled with optimism will send out a message of hope to employees and may encourage them in turn to be curious and keep up to speed with advances in their field too so that they themselves are alert to identifying opportunities within their organisation. 

Tip 2: Ask questions of subject matter experts, invite them to leadership meetings and encourage cross-functional learning events to share knowledge and generate new ideas as well as creating a sense of empowerment at all levels.

This is particularly true for technology. Employees working in all disciplines at all levels will have greater access to a wide range of new technologies as they become increasingly embedded in all business processes. Leaders who demonstrate an interest in technological advancements and encourage their employees to do the same will reap the rewards in the form of improved productivity, agility, security and insight. Studies show that employees who are taught about the technologies used in their organisation and are able to make use of them to do their jobs have lower stress levels than those who aren’t, and feel more confident when further systems and software are introduced.

Tip 3: Encourage a technically literate workforce by identifying Technology Champions to provide peer to peer training and support on the key business systems.

Advances in data and analytics platforms and software support curiosity and learning within all business areas. Business intelligence solutions are becoming increasingly accessible and intuitive, providing employees with quick and easy access to reliable data and analysis to complement their own operational knowledge and experience. Most notably, predictive analytics software is becoming increasingly sophisticated at providing data-led insights into the implications of different courses of action and supporting time sensitive decision making. 

A key skill required of future leaders will be to understand the data collected within their organisation and know how to interrogate it for maximum benefit as well as encouraging others to do the same. The resulting evidence will help answer the critical ‘why change?’ question and support an optimistic approach to the delivery of strategic plans and initiatives.

Tip 4: Encourage collaboration between the data experts and the business experts to identify what data is needed for effective decision making and which reports can be self-service versus the more sophisticated dashboards and scorecards produced by the data experts. 

Curiosity and Trust 

Recent events have heaped unforeseen and potentially crippling pressures onto many previously successful organisations. Business leaders have had to find new ways to adapt and pivot their offering, fast tracking large scale change which would previously have taken months if not years to get through business case reviews and budget sign off processes. 

Successful innovation is guided by a clear vision. Some leaders are naturally visionary, whereas others rely on those around them to create the big ideas. But any idea is only as good as your employees’ acceptance of it, so involving people at an early stage can help ensure that a range of ideas are considered and that there is broad consensus regarding the chosen vision and associated solutions. 

Tip 5: Remember that one person’s brilliant ideas are unlikely to get traction without communication and involvement. Innovation + Alignment + Engagement = Success   

Of course, with a large proportion of the workforce now working remotely, setting up focus groups to debate a vision or brainstorm new ideas has become more challenging. Future leaders will need to be willing and able to mobilise people virtually, via platforms like Teams or Zoom, or in the future their more advanced virtual reality derivatives, and pay extra attention to involving those who are less vocal but no less knowledgeable or creative. Even with the emergence of better quality and cheaper AI solutions potentially changing the employment landscape, the emotions, reactions and choices of real people will continue to drive businesses. Future leaders will need to break through traditional hierarchies in order to empower the most creative and potentially open-minded in the organisation regardless of job title or grade. A facilitative leader who demonstrates curiosity and interest in a range of different ideas and listens to people at all levels of the organisation will engender trust and be rewarded with richer input. 

Tip 6: Consider how effective existing meetings are. How involved are participants, what quality are the outputs and how many new ideas are translating into new products / services / propositions? If the answer is that there is still work to do, then consider whether the purpose of the meeting is clear, are the right people in attendance, how much preparation has been done and does everyone understand they have permission to contribute regardless of role or hierarchy?

To be successful at harnessing creativity, future leaders will need to be adept at balancing risk – too much risk and precious capital might be squandered on projects that don’t deliver, too little risk and the changes might not be extensive enough to respond to new market demands. Future leaders will need to trust their data and trust in the people around them to gauge appropriate levels of risk and the likely returns – and trust their own judgement in making the final decision. 

Trust is hard earned and easily destroyed. Not all innovation will achieve the desired outcomes, and when ideas fail, leaders will need to set an example by demonstrating a calm, curious, questioning approach which elicits valuable lessons whilst avoiding blame and ensuring individuals remain prepared to speak up, challenge the status quo and put forward their next big idea.

Tip 7: Encourage balanced evidence gathering and bold decision making. Set expectations up front and position failure as a critical step in the journey to achieving bigger and better successes.   

Curiosity and Humility 

The 2020s will be a decade when good leaders will choose to balance their focus on machines and algorithms with an equal focus on humanity. Despite increased automation, soft skills will be essential to good leadership. 

With technological advancements driving remote working, the future workforce will become increasingly global and diverse. ‘Retention’ will take on a new meaning as employment contracts become increasingly more flexible, with permanent positions becoming less of the norm. The existing global skills shortage will continue, meaning that talent will be in high demand and skilled employees will have choice. Research has shown that individuals join companies but leave managers, so leaders will have to pay attention to the factors that will attract the best people to join or partner with their organisation (for example remote working, flexibility, personal development, corporate responsibility) and recognise that a manager’s attitude and behaviour impacts retention of talent far more than knowledge and experience.  

Future leaders will need to be curious about the impact they have on others and how their personal values, preferences and behaviours might be perceived by those around them. They will need to demonstrate humility by recognising their own weaknesses as well as their strengths and seek ways to continuously develop as a people leader. Honesty will be more important than ego, and future leaders will need to admit they don’t have all the answers and don’t always get things right.

Effective future leaders will demonstrate empathy and compassion for others whilst remaining resilient under pressure and making tough decisions when necessary. They will take a collaborative approach and demonstrate genuine interest in others. 

Tip 8: These behaviours relate to a leader’s emotional intelligence which starts with self-awareness. Ask colleagues, direct reports and wider stakeholders for feedback on the qualities described above to identify strengths and areas to work on. 

Thriving through a Culture of Curiosity and Learning

Ultimately, the 2020s will be a decade of radical change. Future leaders are already engaging their people in exploring possibilities and ensuring they are constantly upskilling themselves so there is a collective readiness and preparedness for continuous adaptation and evolution. 

Going forward organisations will, more than ever, seek competitive advantage through skilled leadership, and a leader’s effectiveness will be measured not so much on what they themselves do but on what they enable other people to do. By asking questions and encouraging their teams to do the same, by seeking new opportunities and demonstrating an open mind to trying new things, future leaders will cultivate a culture of curiosity and learning that will help organisations push through and thrive in these challenging times.

DRIVE Future Ready Leadership

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