How to future proof your leadership skills

By Claire Flannery, qualified Business Psychologist & Executive, Business & Personal Coach

Type ‘future of work’ into Google and it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the volume of research publications, surveys and articles on what it is and how to survive! We are in the midst of the biggest disruption since the Industrial Revolution with major forces such as new technologies, shifting workforce demographics, and globalisation coming together to create rapid and lasting change.

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According to Deloitte, “At its core, work in future will be more networked, more devolved, more mobile, more team- based, more project-based, more collaborative, more real-time, and more fluid”. In their 2016 research paper looking at C-suite views on the future of work, some key themes to tune into include:

  1. Culture is critical and as leaders, we need to pay attention to culture and actively participate in its development and dissemination.
  2. Communication, collaboration, and connectivity are being transformed, and we need to increase transparency and pay attention to digital communication in the workplace.
  3. Millennials (and Baby Boomers) are driving the pace of change and retaining them requires greater emphasis on nurturing and developing people and building an environment with career flexibility and tools that enable employees to collaborate and exchange ideas transparently.
  4. New digital tools are dramatically changing how we use our screen time and facilitating smart-working practices. As leaders, we need to get on board with new collaboration tools and ensure workplace practices and expectations are aligned with the new capabilities that are available.
  5. New leadership is about leading networks and teams, not hierarchy and we need to shift the mindset from “topdown” to what we might see as “alongside”.
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The future workforce…

Within a people-specific context, leading the future workforce involves attracting, engaging and retaining increasingly diverse and dispersed teams of people. Diversity in backgrounds, perspectives, abilities, life-stages, locations, values, drives and motivations. This is the reality of increased mobilisation, globalisation and leveraging people to achieve a competitive edge, and there is a plethora of research highlighting the creativity benefits of a diverse talent pool, including the impact on an organisation’s bottom line. If we look at generational diversity alone, while millennials will soon make up 50% of the workforce, we are at a stage where many organisations have up to five different generations working together.

Teams may be dispersed, in that some may be permanent employees, some on short contracts, some contingent, some freelance, some remote etc. This alone brings many new considerations.

So how do we do effectively lead this workforce?

In their 2017 research, Anderson et al. looked at existing leadership theories and applicability for the new generation and concluded, “Because of substantive changes in the values and attitudes of today’s workers, our current [leadership] theories face the crisis of becoming less applicable to the leadership contingencies of 21st century organizations”. Plainly put, no one leadership theory is suited to current workforce challenges.

What got us here is no longer fit-for-purpose, and with the buoyant employment market in Ireland, your workforce will vote with their feet if their needs are not being met. We are operating in an ever-changing landscape and our ability to keep ahead, adapt and bring our people with us is essential.

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Emotional Intelligence is key to inclusive leadership

So, what can we do to build and future-proof our own leadership skills?

A great place to start is to focus on your emotional intelligence, as this will help you to tune into the people you work with; adapt your approach to suit a diverse, dispersed workforce; and create a resonant, emotionally intelligent and inclusive culture.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is described by Mayer and Salovey, 1997 as “the ability to perceive accurately, appraise and express emotion; the ability to access and/or generate feelings when they facilitate thought; the ability to understand emotion and emotional knowledge; and the ability to regulate emotions to promote emotional and intellectual growth”.

In their book ‘Primal Leadership’ (2013), Goleman et al. highlight four components of EI:

Personal Competence and Social Competence

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship Management

These work together where self-awareness underpins self-management and social awareness, which in turn underpins capabilities in relationship management.  EI builds up from a foundation of self-awareness. Self-aware leaders understand how their feelings affect themselves and their job performance. They are able to “monitor their moods through self-awareness, change them for the better through self-management, understand their impact through empathy and act in ways that boost others’ moods through relationship management” (Goleman et al.). 

Increasing your self-awareness is the starting point in future proofing your leadership skills. This is where you gain insight into your potential biases on ways of working which enables you to challenge yourself and open your mind to the multitude of ways of getting things done in the modern organisation.

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Rewiring your brain

The good news is that as leaders we can learn, develop and build our emotional intelligence skills. We do this by holding a mirror up to who we are now (as experienced by others) compared to who we want to be and then setting out a plan of action to build on our strengths and reduce our gaps. Working through this involves building on EI competencies through practising new habits over time and effectively rewiring our thought processes to become an emotionally intelligent leader.

It is not an overnight solution, but the benefits are substantial. Emotionally intelligent leaders are in tune with their teams and are able to challenge themselves to adapt to the needs of the future workforce.

As leaders, what we want from our teams is still the same, but the contexts are varied. If we want empowered, high- performing and happy workers, we need to foster accountability and creativity, and develop workers who in turn can adapt to an ever-changing landscape. In order to achieve this, we need to understand our people and be able to motivate them through new and varied ways of working, communicating, collaborating and leading.

Want to become a reflective leader? The Irish Times Training Executive Leadership Programme in partnership with Ulster University offers the opportunity to reflect on your career while building on your skills. Click here for more information on the programme or contact us on (01) 472 7101 today.

About the author

Claire is a qualified Business Psychologist and Executive, Business & Personal Coach with over a decade of experience working in HR leadership in Financial and Professional Services.

She specialises in navigating change and helps individuals, teams and organisations to thrive in times of change – whether that is starting or growing a business, planning and implementing significant business restructure, stepping up in your career, or transitioning out and back into the workplace for maternity leave or parental leave.

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