Which is more important: skills or experience? Lisa Day, Director of Studies for the University of Liverpool Online MBA, argues organisations should change the way they think about and approach leader development to ensure future success.
Identifying and developing future leaders is a concern for all companies, regardless of size, sector or function. We regularly hear businesses airing their concerns about fulfilling future leadership requirements, but this is because there has been a huge shift in what is required of leaders today rather than because a generational skills gap has emerged.
So, as educators, what can we do to change the conversation around leadership, while also equipping the next generation with the skills needed to take up the mantle?
Firstly, we need to help employers understand the impact on leadership of unprecedented change. Be it technological, sociological, economic or political change, it requires all organisations to rethink traditional hierarchies to enable innovation to flourish across all levels. Many companies talk about a “flat structure”, and while this approach does have huge benefits, it also puts extra pressure on junior employees, who are now expected to be decision-makers and to champion new ideas. The pace of change and the subsequent need for greater adaptability is why leaders are now needed at all levels. They are needed to help companies evolve and be more agile when facing risk and opportunity, despite their relative dearth of management experience.
In terms of upskilling, our future leaders need to focus on two main areas in order to adapt to this rapid rate of change. The first is through management education, for those who already have a good deal of experience but need to add some emerging skills (such as digital communication and information management). Managers with significant local, corporate knowledge often lack global experience and an understanding of other cultures and different workplace practices. A more collaborative way of working is going to be increasingly important, so there is a huge benefit to already-proficient managers finding opportunities to work or learn alongside people from different backgrounds around the globe.
Management education for emerging leaders with varying levels of experience can help them explore different styles of working, both through academic theory and through their own real-life experience
The second area of focus is younger leaders, who may have grown up as digital natives in a globalised culture, but who lack the professional skills to be completely rounded. It’s often said that younger people lack some of the softer skills such as communication and teamwork. In the workplace, this manifests as being less able to build relationships and have difficult conversations.
As well as recognising this overhaul of traditional management structures, we must also appreciate the existence of and need for different leadership styles. Managers who become aware of their own leadership style can learn to adapt their approach to suit a particular task and audience, and can recognise and complement the approaches adopted by others. It’s natural for us all to seek reassurance by projecting our own approach onto that of our colleagues, but only by developing different styles can we hope to create the type of leaders needed in an uncertain and complex world.
Management education for emerging leaders with varying levels of experience can help them explore different styles of working, both through academic theory and through their own real-life experience. For example, management education delivered online can be gained alongside a full-time management role, and this means that individuals can put into practice immediately what they have learned.
One of the main challenges for organisations and employers alike will be developing future leaders in an era of increasing complexity. The speed at which new markets are created and destroyed; the response of businesses to emerging trends; and competitor behaviour will require knowledge and skills that no single individual is likely to possess.
For this reason, online learning has opened up a platform for connected learning where managers can access global communities and learn from the experiences of others from different countries, industries and cultures all around the world.
By changing the dialogue around leadership and showing just what tomorrow’s leaders are expected to deal with, we can help ensure all organisations take the necessary steps to change their own organisational structures and approach to leadership development. This involves recognising that leadership-development needs exist across the organisation but will vary. For the individual, these changes to structure and approach entail focusing on what they bring as a leader, encouraging them to try out a range of different leadership styles, and nurturing their innate talents through management education – rather than making them conform to an outdated perception of what it means to lead.