The pace of business change has never been faster. But you can’t abandon the core principles of leadership development.
The best way to understand what’s happening in leadership development is to talk to the people who are conducting it. For this article, HRM spoke to some experts and discovered there were some common themes in their thinking.
Learning in complex environments
Leadership must now be based on continuous learning in order to keep pace with evolving circumstances, says Jo Saies CPHR, the owner and director of PB Performance and Development. Private and public sectors are both grappling with the volume, speed and scale of information within increasingly complex environments.
Saies says that while the leadership skills required in these sectors differ, “both sectors are moving toward each other, as the public sector recognises the need for commercial acumen and the private sector starts to be more aware of its social responsibilities.
“The big shift in leadership is the skills that people need to have in order to lead in this environment of increased complexity.”
Saies insights come from working in HR roles within organisations as well as coaching. One barrier, she says, is that too many people try to do the impossible. In her experience, “Trying to maintain control over our environment only leads to ineffective leadership.
“There is the need to be continuously re-learning things rather than having all the answers, and this means showing vulnerability. It is a real leadership challenge to let go of the need to know all the answers.”
Evette Tattam has worked in executive level HR roles within the banking, legal and energy sectors. She has also seen how difficult it is for leaders to be vulnerable – to express a desire to listen and learn – within cultures that continue to view talent through a very narrow frame of reference.
“Curiosity is underestimated as a leadership capability,” says Tattam. “We need to be better at recognising less commonly appreciated elements of great leadership, such as the ability to listen and have a conversation rather than focusing on our own responses and opinions in an attempt to show how much we already know,” she says.
Developing the right way
Openness to learning might be the first step. But the all important second step is developing capabilities. In this space too there are real challenges.
“Agile, resilient and productive organisations need agile, resilient and productive people,” says Chris Phillips CPHR, CEO of Grey Matta Solutions.
Despite the hyper-connected environment digital advancements have created, Phillips is adamant that “the future of work is human”.
“People want to be heard, feel psychologically safe and be valued,” he says. And that’s true regardless of the sector, industry or company.
Mel Egginton, former manager HR business partnering at Townsville Hospital and Health Service, has worked in the higher education, mining, health and local government sectors and says the greatest challenge for senior leaders is understanding the value of developing leadership capabilities throughout the organisation. There is a temptation, as the volume of available data increases, to spend more time analysing it.
Mel Forbes, formerly of AGL and now the founder of Dott Group, says we have to think about the design of leadership development programs. She believes they need “freedom within framework”. That’s a framework that provides a solid structure while simultaneously allowing for more diverse and targeted development.
“Communication is also a key capability gap,” says Forbes. “Dealing with complexity and change through digital communications has reduced our ability to have effective conversations that have context and content.”
Forbes says she is seeing a return to communication strategies that re-engage people and reduce the expediency of a digital directive culture. Leaning too heavily on digital mediums is just not as effective in managing communication across teams and outside of hierarchical reporting lines.
Most industries in Australia are moving towards a greater level of social responsibility. Forbes has seen a shift in organisations towards more community-minded approaches, where they insist on having greater awareness of the fact that their products and services are also a part of their employees’ lives within the community. Because of this she says leadership development should also be taking into account what communities need and expect.
A move towards understanding
Talking about modern organisational challenges with HRM last year, Atlassian’s work futurist Dominic Price said that as more and more people switch away from manual labour, we need to address the fact that the ‘calluses’ caused by work are no longer on our hands.
He said: “The calluses are now appearing on your brain and we can’t see them. So how do we collectively take ownership for our peoples’ wellbeing?”
The expectation that leaders are in charge frequently creates the impression they are exempt from mental health issues. “The ‘lonely at the top’ sensation is still real today,” says Saies.
But this way of thinking has everything backwards. Indeed, making sure leaders are better able to engage more of their whole selves in work may be an antidote to the rise in mental health challenges facing employees and leadership.
Many of the HR professionals interviewed for this article say that policies and procedures introduced to improve wellbeing in the workplace are only as effective as the leadership capabilities of the implementers. They see the need for leaders to become more self-aware in order to develop a better understanding of how their actions, thoughts and behaviours affect their own experiences as well as the experiences of those around them.
One of the main wellbeing challenges for leaders, says Phillips, is the expectation of having to be constantly connected and ‘on’ all of the time.
“The expectation to be always connected has resulted in an associated anxiety when we try to disconnect. People struggle to mentally detach from work, which leads to feelings of overwhelm, job dissatisfaction and eventually burn-out.”
It’s all well and good to outline what leaders should be doing, but how can you turn the theory into practice?
Phillips says it’s critical that there is consistency of action and messaging in leadership. He recognises it can be challenging to maintain the message of ‘people first’ when ‘business’ gets in the way. However, Phillips implores organisations to set metrics that measure more than the financial aspects of the business.
Saies agrees, saying that it is “people acumen that is both our greatest challenge and greatest opportunity.”
Chrystie Watson is the founder of Learn Leadership.