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William Buist

Abelard Collaborative Consultancy


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What does it mean to have business skills in the 21st Century?


What does it take to embody the future of modern business? William Buist gives the community a few ideas.

Changes in business

Over time the structure of business has changed considerably. In the past, the lines seemed clear. There were those in the company with strategic roles who set policy, and there were those who implemented them. Based on a person's job title, it was usually easy to tell who was who. Exercising good business skills was mostly a matter of following direction. 

The nature of business has changed, and the idea of what constitutes a business skill has changed with it. 

There are notable differences in business itself, resulting from increased globalisation and less focus on what is happening locally. Personalised service is harder to come by as a customer, and in many cases it is even becoming less likely to be sought out. Speed and efficiency are often seen as the top concerns of entrepreneurs as well as their clients, customers, and stakeholders. Businesses are becoming smaller, more specialised and skilled and deeply networked. Now we don’t just niche the markets we seek to serve but niche the work that we do for them. 

Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead famously said “You do not merely want to be considered just the best of the best. You want to be considered the only ones who do what you do.”  Niching skills, knowledge and experience is how that is achieved. Businesses need to develop clarity when it comes to their vision and what niche they both represent and serve. 

Cultural diversity is also becoming a high priority since it is necessary to reach customers and prepare for partnerships that can form anywhere on the globe. Once multiple offices in a variety of international locations were reserved only for the largest corporations. But, as smaller businesses network their niche skills this reality is becoming the norm especially with today's technology providing more options to meet this need. Making this happen involves tapping into quality leadership within the business, which also looks different than it did decades ago.

Inspire engagement

While businesses need to have a sense of clarity when it comes to who is in charge, the way that employees are actually led looks different in a successful business (or even across a network of businesses) of today. Where once the mere presence of power was enough to get people to do their jobs, it has become necessary for true leaders to use their influence in order to move their business forward and get their employees to embrace the same goals. 

Simply following a traditional hierarchy is no longer effective. Leaders must present an image to their employees, customers, and shareholders of honesty and integrity, of insight, and courage, and of a collaborative, valuing spirit. They need to respond to, effect and affect change within the company, and within the business world in general. Employees, as well as others involved in the business, need to be presented with opportunities to be creative and have their thoughts and opinions truly heard, and if appropriate, implemented. They need to network more, engage in social media, and be prepared to respond to feedback, both positive and negative, in a timely manner. Developing and communicating simple and responsible policies, such as recycling, paperless billing, and appropriate social engagement can all help present a positive company image to the world.

Today's employees will resist being engaged at times, but they will also hunger for it. If they perceive that they are truly part of something that they share and believe in, they are more willing to work hard, committed to the success of the company. It needs to feel like it is an extension of themselves, and effective leaders need therefore to have strong communication and listening skills and still exude empathy, and genuine interest in the life realities that their colleagues face. By displaying these skills, company leaders are able to motivate others to present ideas and insight, and to show their own integrity to the world and potential partners. 

Make quick decisions

Whilst business moves ever faster operational decisions also need to be made faster and with more decisiveness. These decisions need to reflect the good judgment of the company, and should prioritise what is most important not only to the immediate needs of the business, but society as well. They must be aligned with the more nuanced and paced strategic focus of the business. Leaders need to pay attention to the political climate, the environmental needs of their community and the world, and show that they maintain a strong ethical stance. Their decisions need to be backed by knowledge of many different facets of the business, including customer relations, marketing, social media, as well as having an understanding of the financial aspects and the bottom line. Different employees will have specialised knowledge and will need to use that knowledge in a meaningful way. Yet still leaders need to be able to recognise a good idea when they see it and act on it.

Being present

Today's leaders need to be present in some capacity nearly all the time. Many clients and customers expect interaction from the top. Social media needs to be monitored and responded to quickly. Technology needs to be effectively incorporated into the business model, and the true leaders and managers need to be available, and not 'out of the office'. (If they are then a fully empowered delegate should be available). Well communicated, mutually understood goals and ambitions for the business help guide, inform and align everyone. With virtual options, being chained to a desk is not only unnecessary, it is also not cost effective for most businesses.

Helping workers be effective

In the old days, if you could type, do basic maths, and particularly if you followed instruction without questioning it, you had a good foot in the door in the world of business. Much more is needed when starting out today. Employees need to present a positive image of the company, whether they are in an office meeting or presenting to a larger network. Good public speaking skills are a must. There is also less opportunity to pass difficult situations on to managers and supervisors. They must handle these themselves, and be able to stay calm when pressure comes. Tense conversations are likely to occur on a regular basis. They need to listen to opinions that differ from their own, and stay rational and respect those opinions. 

Employees are presented with opportunities to help one another do their best by exercising good teamwork skills. Having a sense of when to talk and when to listen is an invaluable skill. During their early days and months with a company, listening is usually the better choice. They need to have humility and be willing to do work they are 'overqualified' for. There are learning opportunities in every situation - if they are able to set the right priorities within their own role and exercise good time management skills. Beyond their work day, it is important to remain informed about the industry overall, by keeping up with appropriate blogs, magazines and newspapers that are relevant to the industry. Good management and great leadership will provide the direction necessary to help their workers succeed.

William Buist is owner of Abelard Collaborative Consultancy, and founder of the exclusive xTEN Club - an annual programme of strategic activities for small, exclusive groups of business owners. xTEN helps accelerate growth, harness opportunity, build your business and develop ideas. William is also author of two books: ‘At your fingertips’ and ‘The little book of mentoring’. See: and Twitter: @Williambuist and @abelarduk LinkedIn:

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William Buist


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