6 Competencies Leaders Need to Develop Right Now

6 Competencies Leaders Need to Develop Right Now

I was at a recent webinar led by Scott Galloway, Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern. He shared some numbers to confirm our collective experience that, right now, years are happening in weeks:

  • E-commerce saw a decade of growth in 8 weeks, from 18% of the retail economy to 28%
  • The number of Americans working from home accelerated by a decade in 2 weeks
  • The stock market saw 10 years’ worth of rip down followed by a decade of recovery in 4 months
  • While it will drop back, government spending this year has matched what was expected in 2045

It’s hardly surprising then, that so many of us are working flat out – keeping day-to-day operations afloat while also working to transform the organization – or risk being left behind. As their strategy and business model evolves, our clients are also realizing they need different kinds of leaders for this new era. However, it’s hard to nail down precisely what this looks like while things are still so volatile. 

Sure, there’s tons of stuff out there on the importance of leadership qualities like resilience, empathy, agility etc. And these are clearly important.  But these qualities are also personality-driven. So, while it’s smart to hire and promote leaders who have these traits, if people don’t already possess them, it’s really hard and time consuming to develop them.

It’s more helpful to focus on capabilities that are more developable and that companies can focus on building right now. We don’t pretend to have this nailed down, and we’re not saying that these can be developed overnight, but we’re learning from a number of clients who are grappling with this question right now.

Where do you want to get to?

One of our pharma clients is looking to reduce their risks and costs by partnering with other organizations.  Faced with disruptive competition and flat interest rates, one of our financial services clients needs to focus on customer acquisition through product and channel innovation.  Another – a technology firm – is looking beyond its saturated, core domestic market to break into new, fast-growing global markets.

Each of them needs to rapidly develop, quite different – and distinctive – capabilities of their leaders.

To define these capabilities, we start by engaging leaders and key stakeholders to reflect on the company’s context, strategic goals and desired culture. We then use a structured process to help them identify the kind of leadership capabilities they’ll need to be successful.

So, there’s not a plug-and-play list of competencies to fall back on here. But there are some themes around ‘meet the moment’ capabilities that have come up repeatedly in our conversations with organizations across a range of sectors.

1. Outside-in Perspective –“What may be out there that I don’t know about, that’s what I worry about the most. The things that can really hurt us are what we haven’t thought about” (Chief Risk Officer, Financial Services). Competition and disruption can come from anywhere. And leaders simply don’t have enough time in the day to keep fully on top of the global competition, rapidly evolving needs of customers or market dynamics. But they do need to stay curious, aware they don’t know what they don’t know and challenge those around them to “probe the boundaries and be a catalyst to developing an external perspective.”

2. Boundary Spanning – “We know that we need to move faster. But a lack of cross-functional working is holding us back” (VP, Manufacturing business). Companies are adjusting to the pace and depth of change by breaking down traditional hierarchies and moving to flatter structures and more collaboration, often virtually. Success no longer hinges on the contribution of individual star performers. It’s about how quickly teams can form, perform and re-form to deliver their objectives. Borrowing from our friends at the Center for Creative Leadership, ‘Boundary Spanning’ is the ability of leaders to rapidly create alignment, commitment and direction across boundaries (functional, organizational, cultural or geographical).

3. Inclusion and Psychological Safety – There’s no team without trust. As Google discovered, a high performing team starts with psychological safety. It’s about treating people with dignity and respect so that people feel they can speak up and take risks without fearing negative consequences.  Inclusion means making people feel they belong, that they’re valued, seeking out diverse perspectives and drawing on the range of knowledge and experience in the team.  As we’ve all seen, when these are lacking, people hold back in meetings. Tensions simmer. The team pulls in different directions. And the leader “hears about all the stuff that’s going well – but not the real problems facing the business” (VP, National Retailer).

4. Leading with Purpose –  “There’s a real disconnect right now between our values on paper and our behavior in practice.” (VP, consulting firm ). Capitalism has taken a beating during this crisis. More than ever, people are looking to organizations to do more than simply make money.  Having, and living a purpose matters – people need to feel they are contributing to something greater than themselves that actually makes a difference in the world. For leaders, authenticity matters. Walking the talk matters – people know when leaders are faking it. And when we say one thing and do another, people remember. 

5. Leader as Coach – Increasingly, we’re seeing companies having to promote new leaders before they’re truly ready. And, as leadership roles evolve and become increasingly complex and ambiguous, the challenge is to “learn the role while leading it”. The crisis has only amplified this challenge.  The solution is not simply to send people on development programs. Instead, there’s a focus on developing leaders’ coaching skills and creating opportunities for them to support and develop one another.

6. Agile Execution: “The external environment is so fluid and volatile right now, that it demands a more agile, flexible approach and thinking. We know we might need to make some radical changes – but ‘radical’ is not who we are as a company” (CRO, Financial Services). there’s no lack of great ideas in organizations. But, what we know from our assessment data is that there’s a limited pool of people who excel in translating them into reality – quickly. Leaders need to get sharper at executing change at speed. At a foundational level, this is about a ‘can do’ attitude, resourceful problem solving and injecting a sense of intensity and focus into the team. At a systemic level, we are increasingly seeing organizations adopt agile principles which involves a radical shift in mindset and capabilities (we’re running a global research project on agile leadership right now). This is a topic for another day, but if you’re curious, this is a helpful overview.

Which of these are important to you? 

Once you know what you need, the hard work begins! How do your current leaders stack up in relation to these capabilities? Do you have the right people in the right roles? How can you accelerate your leaders’ development to close critical gaps? What do you need to do to build these into your hiring and succession planning processes?

And what’s missing? Please share your comments and recommendations below.

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