Oct 7, 2020

Six years, six leadership trends: connection, disruption and accelerated change

When I established my leadership coaching business in 2014, I went from working in billion dollar corporations to running a start-up. I went from selling a corporation to selling myself. From senior leader to supporting leaders. From decision maker to decision making enabler. I’m as excited about my business now as I was then. But within a relatively short space in time, I have witnessed a paradigm shift in the skills and behaviours that leaders now require to navigate the challenges of the current climate.

What has happened to leadership in the last six years? And what has accelerated or changed in the last six months due to the coronavirus pandemic?

Over the last six years, I have observed the following key leadership trends:
1.     Relationships and connections matter
For me, leadership is all about relationships. When I moved from working in large corporates to working for myself, I realised just how important relationships are. In corporate life, my inspiration wasn’t drawn from the corporate, it was the people; working together with leaders and colleagues led to connection. Connection is fundamental. Connection is about energy and the coming together of people who collaborate and derive strength, value and support from the relationship. It’s about achieving something, doing something that matters, making a positive difference and having fun.
I realised this all the more in my first year of business; the people who supported me were people who I had worked with in corporate life. Inspiring and talented people like Penny de Valk and Helen Sweeney. We had connected in corporate life, achieved things, made a difference and had fun along the way. We continued to work together when I established my business, and we still do today. With Helen Sweeney, we connected as like-minded, innovative people 25 years ago, and today our relationship is just as fresh and energising, working on clients together and combining our years of experience and expertise.
For me people don’t fall into simple categories of personal or business, it’s not an either or - that limits thinking and reduces the value of your network. People buy from people, business involves personal connections, relationships don’t change significantly depending on the setting.
Ultimately successful leadership is about the people; invest in people and relationships early on, remembering that relationships are two-way and not all about you.
2.     Learning mindset is critical
There is always something to learn, even the greatest leaders can learn from others. Harvard Business Review writes about great leaders needing the right mindset; growth and fixed mindsets, and learning and performance mindsets. Leaders with a learning mindset, more so than a performance mindset, are more likely to engage in deep-level learning, seek feedback, make more effort and perform at a higher level.
Learning and leadership are indispensable. Leaders without a learning mindset - who think they know it all - can’t be leading effectively, especially in the current uncertain climate. For me, the joy of setting up my own business appealed to my joy of learning. I continuously learn to remain current, informed, accredited and to be the best coach I can possibly be and to support people with their own learning in the best possible way.
Today, it’s incredibly easy to access learning online, whether articles on Twitter, TED Talks, online courses or working with a ‘study buddy’. Despite knowing each other in corporate life, Kate Howsley and I truly bonded over a passion for learning and that passion led us to becoming Thinking Environment consultants and teachers and setting up The Business of Thinking together.
3.     Aspiration more than expectation
In the last few years much has been written and espoused about business vision and there’s far more emphasis on taking people with you; connecting with and energising your people so they want to engage on the journey with you.
Being future-focused requires aspiration. Aspiration is critical for leaders to take people with them to a future place that they didn’t think was possible and to achieve business growth and change that’s beyond expectation. For me, investing in myself and my future enables me to invest in my clients and their future. We are all responsible for creating our own future, but it’s also about confronting the brutal reality that in corporate life our future is in someone else’s hands. By being aspirational and contributing to the whole, you drive your own future.
Andrew McKelvey, a serial and relentless entrepreneur, adventurer and the CEO of Monster Worldwide, lived by his own rules which did play some part in his downfall in later years.  However, as a very successful CEO, his keynote at a meeting in Las Vegas where he talked about the difference between expectation and aspiration was something I’ll never forget and something I share as a lesson in leadership for all of us.
4.     Access to different thinking
Choosing the right role models and mentors is vital for leaders to develop their thinking. When I’m supporting leaders, I encourage them to access enlightened thinkers and to share their own point of view. It’s about leaders developing their own ideas, diversity of thought and fresh thinking, and helping them to be authentic, liberated and enlightened rather than a mere echo chamber for other people’s thinking. Senior leaders tend to find themselves removed from ‘real’ thought and feedback, therefore I advise people to find the time to think and to access thought leaders.
The best leaders I work with are those who dedicate time to think, read, learn and actively focus on their self-development. Incredibly tough I know given competing business priorities. Technical skills and expertise may have got you there, but they don’t automatically equate to being a great leader. Inspirational leadership is a skill in itself and something to aspire to. Matt Monge summarises it well;

“Having a title doesn’t make you a leader any more than having a bedazzled jumpsuit makes you Elvis.”
When working with leaders, I offer shortcuts to different thinking and expertise. It’s not just thinking from renowned business leaders such as Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Martha Lane Fox. It’s about thought leaders such as Sydney Finkelstein who writes about the differentiating qualities that characterise ‘superbosses’, Francesca Gino’s thoughts on what truly defines ‘rebel talent’ and Bob Sutton’s ‘no assholes work here’ rule. Also, Nancy Kline’s work on Time To Think, Brene Brown on courage and vulnerability, Jacob Morgan on the future of work and Matthew Syed’s thinking on cognitive diversity. These are all thought leaders from diverse backgrounds who offer a different perspective on current challenges.
Having access to thought leaders is a key enabler to much broader and better thinking.
5.     Agility and pace come hand in hand
More than ever, leadership is about being agile in the now while being strong for the future. It’s about understanding where you are going and what you need to do now to get there. It’s about people; investing in them now and building relationships with new and interesting people who you can possibly work with in the future. Building a network of ‘unlike-minded’ people will position you to collaborate with people with different expertise and thinking in the future. Working to a diverse range of people’s strengths brings agility, balance, new ideas and energy. 
Corporate Rebels talk about managers in many companies hunched behind laptops, planning and predicting whereas so much more can be achieved by thinking differently, being agile, experimenting and adapting to new situations.
As an Executive Coach I’m often a change agent for my clients, introducing them to other leaders who have similar issues or could offer greater insight into a situation quickly. The power of connection has become increasingly important for agility when navigating new situations and uncertainty. 

The current uncertainty and subsequent pace of change is having an ever-increasing impact on business. It’s now about the absolute pace of continual change – a trend that won’t change anytime soon

6.     Collaboration is key
Collaboration is essential for reducing risk, enhancing expertise, increasing agility, strength and fun. Rich and rewarding relationships are important and I have always found inspiration from conversations with great leaders, clients and coachees that I work with. I asked two of my clients, experts in leadership and transformation, about the leadership trends they have observed over the last six years.
Sally McGuire, a global talent manager and leadership expert:
“In the last decade, there has been a subtle shift from developing leadership skills and competencies to looking at sustainable leadership behaviour and creating a sustainable leadership legacy. What do we need to do with leaders now to create a leadership culture? How can leaders grow and contribute to the organisational culture?
Closely aligned to leadership behaviour is ‘human leadership’; how personal values and beliefs impact leadership behaviour. A shift towards a human leadership approach enables leaders to consider people’s wellbeing alongside productivity; wellbeing directly impacts performance.
The current climate has prompted an increased focus on ‘adaptability’; adapting to situations and creating opportunities. The pandemic has disrupted the change agenda and it feels like every week brings a new challenge. Creating a sustainable leadership environment requires collaboration and the focus has changed from the individual leader and self-awareness to leading as a team and collaboration.
What has really resonated for me is the shift in trust. A leader’s ability to trust is not a competency, it’s about the climate and culture. To create an environment where people grow, develop and thrive, you have to trust them. Six years ago, the focus was more on performance management. Now, leaders need to build trust with people who they mainly interact with on a virtual basis. The Trust Equation balances credibility, reliability and intimacy with self-orientation to determine trustworthiness, helping to drive sustainable leadership behaviours and build relationships based on trust. The pandemic has accelerated the need for trust in organisations as people work remotely and existing work practices have been challenged.
For me, these changes are subtle, constantly evolving and they transcend borders, countries and regions as the global pandemic accelerates change.”

Sarah Barrett, a business transformation consultant who drives large scale business change:

“Over the last six years, I’ve seen increased awareness of building organisational capability, by this I mean the whole organisational system, people, talent, culture, systems, processes and innovation. There has been a notable increase in the levels of investment businesses are willing to invest in leadership development. The Chief Executives and Boards I work with are actively pursuing the business benefits they recognise as a clear ROI directly linked to Increased Organisational Capability driven by strong leadership. 

The role of leaders over the last six years has changed significantly, becoming broader and not only strategic but also far more connected to what’s happening, in real time and on the front line. This change has been driven by the exponential shift in the digital and data arena. Digital advancement has enabled leaders to become aware of the entire organisational eco- system. Improved systems and reporting give leaders instant access to data and a finger on the pulse view of what’s happening and where challenges and opportunities lie.

These advancements really complement remote working and, in turn, opens up the talent pool that businesses can access. By doing so we see how leadership styles have shifted; improved technology and real-time data now brings leaders closer to colleagues and customers no matter where they are geographically located.  Agile leaders adapt, predict and respond to situations more quickly than ever before. 

I believe Leaders today need to be agile to survive in this climate. The Covid pandemic has been a disruptor to business operations and has forced behavioural change, driven by necessity. Tools to support agility, virtual-working and collaboration such as Microsoft Teams for example, have existed for a long time, however it is only recently there has been a real driving purpose to channel shift. This increased demand has led to the rapid evolution of platforms and tools which is really exciting. 

Those leaders who already had the ambition and foresight to embrace change, have seen recent events as a catalyst for change and seizing opportunities. Others have become stuck, the requirement for such rapid change is overwhelming and they try to keep working in a traditional analogue way. Leaders who hope things will return to a pre-pandemic normal will struggle, as will those who seek to achieve a calm new normal. 

Leadership coaching has a big part to play in helping leaders at all levels to understand their strengths and where they need to focus to add additional value to the organisation. Businesses still need strong executors but, when riding a storm, quick thinking, collaboration and agility is key.”
In summary
If you’d have asked me in 2014 what the business, social and economic landscape would look like in 2020, I’d have been absolutely wrong. 2020 as we know is unprecedented, it’s proving incredibly challenging for leaders, but also exciting for some and it has pushed us forward and accelerated change in so many ways.
Leaders who are aspirational, inspirational and make a difference make a memorable impact. Simon Sinek was asked what business he would start right now in the current climate? His response; plugging the gap in connection, empathy, relationships, equality and understanding. All the characteristics required by today’s leaders. It’s my role and privilege to help leaders to be their best, make the best leadership decisions for them and their business and help them to navigate the challenges in the current and continuing uncertainty.


As always thanks for reading.  I’m grateful to everyone for your comments and feedback and always open to hear your thoughts.