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Toby Kheng

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Leadership: why adaptability is the must-have skill for leaders today


Leadership programmes are littered with coaching models, strategic planning canvases and commercial awareness simulations. Whilst all this stuff is still relevant and important, it's not what will make a leader successful, only passable. 

Every industry and workplace will continue to be disrupted by technology, and therefore adaptability is often cited as the number one attribute workers will need. 

With everyone shooting for adaptability to survive and thrive, knowing when to adapt and what to adapt to is where leaders should be focusing their efforts. 

Anticipating change and being ahead of it is key. So what are most leadership programmes missing?

Set the expectations for the pace of change

I have witnessed numerous leadership development initiatives billed as an annual programme. 

Whilst it’s great to have some routine and rigour to learning, all this does is establish a fixed way of doing things - for a whole year. 

It also creates an endpoint, suggesting that once you’ve finished this programme you’ll be a great leader.

Whilst this isn't the intention, this A to B approach doesn’t help. 

Conversely, having worked for a start-up, to think of having anything set in stone for a whole year is unimaginable. 

Leadership programmes are only really set up to deliver more practical leaders, rather than more visionary ones.

Future work is less about a three-year strategy to get from A to B, it’s more about setting a vision to get to Z and being comfortable with a changeable journey to get there.  

Whilst many organisations grapple with the existential crisis of having to be quicker and more agile, the development of their leadership must follow suit. 

We should all know what we're trying to achieve with any programme, but to create a path for a whole year isn’t a practical behaviour to apply to work. It’s just easier for the person designing the leadership programme.

What I’m not saying is that we need to get rid of all the stuff that features in many leadership programmes. Coaching, for example, will always be really important. 

Leadership skills programmes that react to the business, react to the market and help define the path as it progresses will be the ones that create forward-thinking leaders. 

This alone doesn't help create a complete modern leader, however.

What is a modern leader?

An ex-colleague and I recently had the chance to reflect on the two very different styles of leadership we experienced from two different CEOs at the organisation we both worked at together. 

Despite being in the same organisation the two approaches could not have been more different.

One was visionary and driven by purpose, a real force to be reckoned with and an individual that could inspire and motivate employees and clients alike. 

He did this by articulating the future and the passion he had for defining it. 

The most successful leaders of the future will have similar traits to those of the past - plus much more. 

The second, his successor, had a history of great success at notable international organisations, he led with fantastic commercial prowess, and the ability to sell himself and the business. 

For my ex-colleague and I, they represented two ends of a spectrum: a visionary at one end and practical leader at the other. Neither were complete leaders. 

The visionary brought us into the purpose and the journey the company was on, but their commercial acumen left a lot to be desired. 

The practical leader came with a more considered approach to how to increase turnover and maximise margin, at the sacrifice of human connections. 

We both agreed that the business really needed a compromise that incorporated these two types of leadership.

Leadership programmes are only really set up to deliver more practical leaders, rather than more visionary ones.

Business is evolving, and so is leadership 

I could lay the blame with technology. The visionary was only able to ‘predict’ the future as he was really into his technology - but surely this is more about curiosity and little to do with know-how. His business acumen was weak, and the business ran into problems. 

The practical leader took over and whilst commercially the business was steadied, this new period of stability came with a lack of innovation and creativity.

In my experience, there are plenty of leaders that have business acumen out there. There is a steady stream of CEO’s that come fresh from being a CFO. 

In the larger organisations I've worked in, this certainly rings true. 

Businesses are more successful when they define the future rather than following others.

Innovation, pace and creativity are sacrificed in favour of perfecting the art of the norm. 

The retail industry has so many examples of this, and many of them are failing because they are trying to perfect the same old model. 

The lack of vision and real purpose means many are falling by the wayside. 

‘Being customer-led’ isn’t a purpose, it’s what every retailer should be doing. If a retailer was truly customer-led, it would know what its purpose was.

Adaptability is just as important as capability

The most successful leaders of the future will have similar traits to those of the past - plus much more. 

It’s very easy to sight LinkedIn clickbait heroes such as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs et al, but what they have/had that set them apart is/was a vision of the future and a clear purpose.

These are great examples of companies that shaped the future rather than the future shaping them. 

Businesses are more successful when they define the future rather than following others. For example, If you’re a bank and trying to simply copy Monzo or Starling then you’ve already lost. 

How much are you getting your leaders to think about the future of your business, industry or even their careers? 

Coaching models and commercial awareness will still be important, but added vision and purpose is what will set them apart. 

Leaders need to be able to anticipate change and be ahead of it.

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership development: it’s time to ditch what you think you know.

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Toby Kheng

Account Director

Read more from Toby Kheng

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