By Jacob Morgan
In many ways, leaders a few decades ago lived in a simpler time with simpler tasks. Their employees tended to stay with the company for longer, which meant that leaders spent less time attracting and retaining talent, and the general pace of life and work was slower. Without advanced technology and constant connectivity, workers could clock out at 5 p.m. and be totally done with work – without even having to think about it in many cases – until 8 a.m. the next day.
But times have changed, and today’s leaders live in an increasingly busy and complicated world. With numerous distractions and changes speeding down the pipeline, it can be difficult for leaders to keep their organizations ahead of the curve. This will only get worse for future leaders. The pace of change isn’t slowing down, and disruptions to how we work and interact are changing the face of entire industries.
In order to be prepared for the future, leaders must know what they’re up against. As part of the research for my new book, The Future Leader, I interviewed more than 140 CEOs around the world. One of the questions I asked was open ended about the greatest challenges they think leaders will face over the next decade and beyond. Their answers covered a wide range of perspectives, but there were definitely some commonalities and themes. From their responses and my additional surveys and research, I’ve narrowed it down to the two biggest types of challenges future leaders will face: futurizing and humanizing.
When I asked CEOs about challenges for future leaders, an overwhelming number of the responses involved something about the future itself – being able to see the big picture, keeping up with the pace of change, breaking away from the status quo, etc. These ideas can all be summarized in the need to futurize an organization and themselves. In order to be successful in the future, leaders need to have the right tools and mindsets. What has always been done won’t always work, and leaders need to be able to push the envelope and take calculated risks.
One of the biggest roadblocks to futurizing is getting stuck on short-term thinking. Too often, companies and leaders get stuck only looking at the next quarter. They focus on getting the best results on their quarterly earnings and seem to take business three months at a time. With their short-sighted view, however, they are missing the bigger picture of where their business could grow in the long run. Long-term thinking includes setting lofty goals of where you want the organization to be in five or ten years. No one can predict the future, but having the mindset to look towards the future can help leaders see changes on the horizon before they hit them square in the face. Modern organizations are also tasked with working on global and social problems, which can’t be solved on a quarterly basis. Customers and employees expect organizations to take a stand on important issues, which requires having long-term thinking and setting a strong vision for the future.
At the same time, future leaders also face the challenge of getting too stuck on the future and not being able to adapt. One of the biggest challenges future leaders will face is keeping up with the pace of change and new technology. It used to be that organizations could create a five-year plan and stick with it for the entire five years. Many of the CEOs I spoke with shared that their companies can no longer plan that far out, and if they do, they do it knowing that everything will likely change. Future leaders need to have a long-term vision, but they also must be willing to change and adapt with new advancements and technology. Just when they feel like they a grasp of something and are using it well within their organizations, something new will come along that throws the old way of working out the window. Successful leaders and organizations will take those changes in stride and quickly and easily make advancements.
When I spoke with Michael Neidorff, CEO of Centene, he said this: “The challenge of uncertainty is the greatest challenge anyone can face, but embracing innovation and technological change is key to continuing to evolve in today’s environment. Instead of seeing this as an obstacle, view it as a window to the future.”
The challenge of embracing change instead of avoiding it will be strong for future leaders. Embracing change can lead to huge rewards and put a company at the forefront of innovation. Instead of shying away from change and new technology, future leaders need to step up to the challenge and realize that they can make a difference if only they are willing to move forward without total certainty of what comes next.
The huge challenge for future leaders is the need to humanize. As technology grows and becomes a powerful force in organizations, leaders need to learn to balance new technology with the core human elements of their companies. Technology has made every company a technology company, but even if all technology disappeared tomorrow, companies would still be able to operate. They wouldn’t, however, be able to operate without their people. Too often organizations focus on being first adopters of new technology without focusing on the asset that really matters and that will propel them towards the future: their people.
A growing challenge and opportunity for the future when it comes to humanizing a business is to create diverse teams. It used to be that boardrooms were filled solely of old, white men. In fact, that’s still the case in many organizations. But things are changing, and a diverse group of new people are joining the workforce. A diverse team isn’t just made up of people who don’t look alike. Diversity includes everything from age and gender to different backgrounds, cultures, religions, sexual orientations, and much more. The best leaders surround themselves with a diverse team of people who aren’t afraid to share their unique perspectives and ideas instead of just agreeing with whatever the leader says. The challenge for leaders is to have courage to actually create a diverse team and then adapt their mindset to effectively lead a diverse team without differing opinions halting any progress.
With humanizing an organization also comes the challenge of upskilling employees. New technology and advancements, as well as a shortage of talent, means that many employees aren’t skilled for their jobs. What they learned a few years ago could be totally obsolete today. Each employee is responsible for their own learning and career development, but leaders and organizations also need to invest in structured training programs to ensure employees have the most up-to-date skills. Technology and automation are powerful tools for a company, but many employees work in fear of being replaced by machines. A number of successful companies have been able to automate some of their mundane tasks without having to cut any human employees. That’s because they move those employees to other areas of the company and retrain them with a new skillset.
Kent Thiry, CEO of DaVita, told me this: “A true test of leadership is the ability to continually invest in your team. We distinctively invest in frontline teammates to give them opportunities for growth beyond the standard career ladder. Professional development additionally requires an investment in personal self-awareness and mindfulness. Encouraging teammates holistically drives the motivation and resilience when new technologies emerge.”
Leaders of the future will have to balance the need to keep their companies efficient and modern with also taking care of employees and ensuring humans are working in the right areas with the right skills. A strong upskilling program requires an investment of time and resources and should be constantly updated to reflect changing skills and technology. Future leaders will have to stay ahead of these changes and make upskilling employees a priority. With the right resources, upskilling programs can pay off with employees who are prepared for an ever-changing future.
Leaders of the future will have more responsibilities and burdens than ever before. Their positions will come with challenges we’ve never seen before, such as the need to both futurize and humanize a company. However, if those challenges can be met, there is the potential for unprecedented growth and impact.
About the Author
Jacob Morgan is one of the world’s leading authorities on leadership, employee experience, and the future of work. He is a 4x best-selling author, speaker, and professionally trained futurist. He is also the founder of The Future of Work University, an online education and training platform that helps future proof individuals and organizations by teaching them the skills they need to succeed in the future of work. His new book, The Future Leader, which is based on interviews with over 140 CEOs around the world is coming out Jan 2020, you can learn more or order it at getfutureleaderbook.com