Being a leader ain’t what it used to be. Today’s managers are negotiating unchartered territories, with technology disrupting markets, often almost overnight, intense competition and an increasingly global work environment, complete with all the cultural and communication challenges it brings.
This isn’t just the picture for larger organisations – managers in companies of all sizes are finding themselves having to work in very unpredictable, uncertain and rapidly changing environments.

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This poses a challenge for HR, in terms of how these managers are developed and in what. Some of the tried and tested approaches of the past are just not fit enough – or fast enough – to produce leaders with the right skills, approaches and attitudes.

Recent research from Hult Ashridge Executive Education has shed some light on emerging skillsets for leaders, and what organisations need to think about if they want to develop managers with the resilience and agility needed for the workplace of the future.
These are the five issues companies need to be considering right now:

1. Put relational skills first

In a working world characterised by increasing collaboration, virtual working and cross-functional teams, managers need high-level influencing, negotiation and communication skills. But typically, companies don’t invest in developing these skills until people are further into their careers, and already in management roles. Millennial employees – with their well-documented ambition and thirst for progress – are stepping into management roles much earlier (and with much less experience) than their predecessors. Organisations need to invest in developing these critical relational skills much earlier in people’s careers – ideally integrating them into training and development programmes from graduate stage onwards.

2. Focus on digital awareness

Are you up on the latest developments in AI? What’s your knowledge of blockchain and crypto-currency like? With technological developments coming onto the market at an alarming speed, managers may not have the time or resources to understand the intricate details or be able to get hands-on with all of the latest tech. What is important, however, is that they are aware of what’s happening and what opportunities (or threats) these new technologies pose to their market. Companies need to support their managers in developing enough knowledge to appreciate the impact digitisation will have on their business – and help them develop the confidence to hand over accountability to the digital experts in their teams. Researchers suggest that a good first step would be to acknowledge this emerging skill by making it a core competence that is recognised in appraisals.

3. Encourage a growth mindset

Organisations need to actively look for people who have a can-do, positive attitude and who can see exciting opportunities in the changing world of work, rather than getting bogged down in the difficulty and drama around how everything is changing. People with fixed mindsets (a belief that they can’t develop or improve their natural skill set) will be the ‘blockers and stoppers’, rather than the enablers of progress that companies really need. Employees who are equipped with the agility to learn quickly and to change direction on the spot will be able to help companies respond more quickly to shifts in the market and changes in demands from clients. Research has shown that a growth mindset (an aversion to the word ‘can’t’) can be developed. Companies can support employees in this by providing stretch projects, good quality feedback and coaching and allowing people to experiment and take risks in a safe environment.

4. Tailor the learning

One size fits all training just isn’t appropriate any more. Companies need to recognise that employees will need different learning at different stages of their careers. Fledgling managers, for instance, might need to focus on their teamwork and communication skills. Those with more experience behind them might need to spend time developing their understanding of strategy and honing their ‘political’ skills. The key is to give employees access to a wide range of learning opportunities and to balance the formal development with informal and self-driven learning. Thanks to technology, there is now a myriad of fast and cost-effective ways to deliver learning – companies need to exploit these innovations to give people the learning they need at the time they need it.

5. Exploit opportunities for on-the-job learning

Learning on the job, alongside more experienced colleagues, certainly isn’t new – but it is often overlooked in favour of the new, more shiny things. Younger employees often have an appetite for training that exceeds the organisation’s budget – this informal style of learning is a way for organisations to meet that need and ensure that knowledge is being shared across the business. Stretch assignments, secondments, coaching and mentoring are all good ways to ensure people can develop new skills quickly. More experienced employees are typically keen to share their knowledge – and often will get as much out of the process as their younger or less experienced colleagues.


Copies of the Hult Ashridge research are available here:

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Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.