At our ReimagineHR summit in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, dozens of heads of HR, HR business partners, learning and development leaders and specialists convened in a peer benchmarking session on leadership, or more specifically, what their organizations are doing to improve the effectiveness of their leadership in the future.
When we talk about leadership, different people and organizations have different ideas of what the word “leader” means. Most of the organizations represented in the room define “leader” as anyone who manages other people, while about 20 percent said it referred specifically to the top three to four layers of management, whose decisions affect the entire company. Other participants noted that while they have a specific definition of “leader” as manager, they expect all of their employees to demonstrate leadership, or identify employees who are not managers themselves but still lead their colleagues through their influence.
When we talk about leadership development, though, we are usually talking about identifying the people who will succeed the current generation of senior managers and executives at the organization. Here are some of the topics that came up in Wednesday’s discussion of what HR professionals are thinking, worrying, and getting excited about as they try to identify the leaders of tomorrow:
Developing Leaders for the Future Is the Primary Concern
The majority of participants said this was their biggest challenge at the moment. In the conversation that followed, several people attributed this challenge to the rapid pace of change in today’s business environment. Developing people within an environment of constant change is tricky, they said, as it becomes harder to be sure that what leaders and prospective leaders are learning today will still be valuable to the business when the time comes to use it. Even more importantly, the consistency of change means that leadership development becomes an ongoing journey. An employee can no longer acquire a single set of “leadership skills” and believe they will always be ready to lead with that skill set.
Future Leaders Will Require Different Skills Than Leaders Today
Participants gave mixed answers as to how effective their organization was at incorporating future leadership needs into their current development approaches. Part of what makes this challenging is that the leadership skill set is evolving. For example, leading a more diverse workforce and managing remote employees workforce are increasingly critical skills for leaders, but many of today’s leaders never had to deal with these challenges earlier in their careers. Also, some aspects of leadership remain foundational but the “how” is changing: Communication is still table stakes for leaders, for example, but good communication skills mean something different in a digital-first organization than they did when work was mostly done face-to-face.
Most Organizations Aren’t Thinking Far Into the Future About Leadership Development
Asked how far ahead their leadership development and succession plans looked, 60 percent of participants said less than two years, and 31 percent said three to five years. As to why their timeframes are so short, participants said that in addition to time and budget constraints, the inability to predict what leaders will need down the line makes them reluctant to invest too much in employees who look like potential leaders today but might not in five years. Again, this environment of rapid and constant change has emerged as an obstacle to long-term leadership planning.
Improving Leadership Metrics Is a Common Need
Asked whether they were confident that their organizations would have a strong leadership team in next five years, most of the Wednesday’s participants were optimistic, but asked whether they had a good method to measure the success of their leadership strategy and development, nearly nine in ten disagreed. One challenge here is that different business units have different measures of success, making it harder to coordinate leadership metrics across the entire organization.
Technology Investments Are Increasing
A full 70 percent of attendees at Wednesday’s session were said their organizations were increasing investment in technology-driven leadership development solutions over the next five years, while the remaining 30 percent said their investment would likely stay the same (nobody’s investment is decreasing). These investments include on-demand digital learning tools as well as social platforms for networking, development, and mentorship.