We know that a shortage of the right leadership skills is a growing problem for many businesses, coinciding with a period of significant change both inside and outside of the workplace.Inside the workplace, there’ve been radical organisational design advances with a move to flatter structures, lots more cross-functional and collaborative working and a far greater digital influence.Away from the workplace, we’ve seen huge political, socioeconomic and technological changes in recent years, which are all having a big influence on us, our behaviour and how and when we work.As you’d expect, this scale of evolution has all brought about some different needs when it comes to developing leadership skills. Now, more than ever, we need to create leaders that are equipped to:

  • Create an environment of healthy challenge, where people at all levels speak up and leaders listen
  • Support different needs of working generations
  • Encourage, empower and engage teams
  • Foster a culture of constant learning and development
  • Collaborate and bring different specialists together, encouraging knowledge-sharing.

So, what kind of leadership development programmes do you need to create to successfully navigate the changing working world? And what should your broader strategy and approach to developing leaders look like?

1. Start leadership development early

Some estimates suggest that as many as 83 percent of current leaders are millennials. The headline we should take here is that people are being promoted into management roles earlier. This can obviously be a good or a bad thing, depending on peoples’ readiness for such roles. And that’s where development programmes must help to better prepare tomorrow’s leaders.Aim to identify your next generation leaders as early as possible in order to best prepare them for leadership. Also make sure future leaders are able to shape your leadership development plans by involving them in decisions now.Keep in mind that leadership selection is a two-way process – as much as you’ll want to select your future leaders, emerging leaders will be looking at current leaders as well. Ensure that current leaders are role modelling behaviours that emerging leaders will respect, making them more inclined to stay on to take up leadership roles themselves. Leadership is no longer seen as the only path to success. If they don’t respect your current leaders they will look to move on somewhere they can shape a culture more in line with their ethos.Lastly, ensure leaders are developed in line with your organisational values and ways of working but also in a way that doesn’t suffocate their appetite to challenge and contribute – you never know, you might learn something!

Case study example:

For one leading online fashion retailer we work with, their challenge was around having large numbers of millennials being promoted quickly into leadership positions. This was necessary to help them meet the needs of a fast-growth business, but this group naturally needed additional developmental support to equip them to lead teams.

2. Broaden leaders’ horizons

Employees increasingly expect leaders to be more accessible, more approachable and more visible in the organisation. There’s an opportunity here for current and emerging leaders in retail, manufacturing or other customer-facing workplaces to ‘keep their hand in’ and ensure they’re regularly experiencing life on ‘the front line’ as part of their on-going development. Challenge them on whether they’ve recently been involved in a shift working within a customer-facing part your organisation, or perhaps observed life as a customer. You should also look to give leaders exposure to multiple disciplines and areas to help them develop well-rounded skills and knowledge across the business.

Case study example:

At a large local authority we’ve been working with, the CEO ensures that he is able to put himself in the shoes of employees and customers by doing things like sitting with employees on shifts or queuing up for his parking permit so that he may interact directly with customers.

3. Increase leaders’ self-awareness

Emotional intelligence is essential to being an effective leader of people. But if leaders don’t first understand themselves, their own leadership style, strengths and development needs, how can they possibly motivate, engage and manage others? Leaders being seen to openly work on their development areas is considered a big strength in today’s workplace.Suggest to your leaders they be open and transparent about what their development priorities are, perhaps sharing these with their immediate team. If they don’t already do so, they could invite feedback from peers and direct reports via the 360 degree feedback process – this will help to increase their self-awareness. From here they could choose to update teams on actions they’re taking to develop and on progress they’re making.

4. Focus on digital capability

Deloitte reports that just five percent of companies feel they have strong digital leaders in place, according to the 2017 Global Human Capital Trends survey. The positive, though, is that the same report reveals that 72 percent of respondents are developing or starting to develop new leadership development programmes focused specifically on digital management.The first challenge is to help your leaders to understand digital for the context of your organisation, your employees and your customers. Some other capabilities you could choose to focus on when trying to improve leaders’ digital preparedness include:

  • Being innovative and brave; open to taking calculated risks and empowering others to do so too
  • Having the ability to easily adapt to change and make adjustments in their approach
  • Being adept at working collaboratively with people at all levels, recognising when to support and when to challenge
  • Having a good understanding of the difference between digital (technology) and digital (culture).

5. Help leaders to embed learning

Classroom-based learning still has its place, albeit perhaps a different and more niche one in today’s relentlessly busy workplace. What we’re seeing prove to be effective for leaders, and quite popular, is taking a more tailored approach to programmes that help leaders to develop a particular skillset or evolve their behaviours.One of the biggest gripes with some classroom learning or ‘sheep-dip exercises’ where every leader goes through the same programme is that many of the skills learned might not be relevant to all participants and so the value is diminished.Instead consider shorter and more flexible modules that allow leaders to pick and choose to attend the most relevant parts of training for them. Afterwards, think about how to best support your leaders to embed new skills learned ‘on the job’. This could include setting up practical challenges for them to complete or prompting them to keep diaries detailing their observations and experiences of putting new skills into practice.