4 traits of future-ready leaders you need to know now
- Posted on June 19, 2019
- Estimated reading time 4 minutes
No one knows what’s coming next, but everyone’s getting ready for it as fast as they can. The urge to anticipate the future, whatever it brings, is understandable. Change has never come as quickly and kept things as unsettled for so long. Competition half a world away has never had so strong an impact. Geopolitics—with its potential to alter the access to entire markets—has never seemed so volatile.
So companies overhaul their infrastructures, reorganize their businesses, retrain their workers. They’re working to get everything future-ready—except their leadership. At this moment of history, what does being a future-ready leader even mean? And most importantly: Is future-ready leadership a talent an executive can acquire?
Based on our experience with clients at both midmarket and large-scale companies around the world, future-ready leadership can be cultivated, just as leadership in general can be cultivated. Future-ready leaders have characteristics in common. Here are four:
- Courageous & imaginative. Some future-ready leaders launch new businesses, others shake up old ones. Either way, they have an unrelenting passion and courage, driven by a tremendous sense of optimism. That’s a longstanding leadership trait, of course, but now it’s driven in part by something new: a deep, even innate, understanding of both business and technology. The CEOs who truly “get it” walk and talk like the CTOs of five or 10 years ago. They’re not asking if all businesses are digital now. They understand that business and technology have converged so that the line between them no longer exists. And their enthusiasm to use that knowledge to help their companies succeed is boundless.
- Digitally savvy. Future-ready leaders don’t just acknowledge that tech is an enabler of their businesses; they’re genuinely curious about the power of technology to play instrumental roles in the services or products they bring to market. More and more, that means they’re digital natives for whom technology has always been an integral part of their lives. Can a digital immigrant share this curiosity for the new? Think of pop stars: some stay current throughout their careers, others get stuck in the eras that made them famous.
- Thrives on complexity and risk. What’s not to like about innovation? How about its flip side: risk and occasional failure? Future-ready leaders live and breath innovation, which means they have more than a tolerance for risk and failure. They’re comfortable with rapid cycles of test-fail-learn as inevitable costs of getting ahead and staying ahead. Leaders have always been risk-takers, but future-ready leaders bring that up a notch. They look for bigger innovations, which means they take bigger failures in stride.
- Collaborative. The days of hugely expensive, years-long designs of anything, leading up to a locked product and global launch, are gone. The future-ready leader knows that everything up until the day of launch is sunk cost. That’s the day that the product emerges—and it’s the customers who give it life, courtesy of their feedback. Like organic life, the product grows incrementally, evolves, gets better, more powerful, more agile, takes on roles that its creators may never have envisioned. It’s the customers and their feedback—part of a two-way conversation of co-creation with the manufacturer or service provider—that makes this possible. Future-ready leaders relish this conversation, listen to the feedback, digest it, mine it for insight, and shape the future.
If you already embody these characteristics, congratulations and stop reading here. If not, don’t worry; you have plenty of company. Becoming a future-ready leader takes lots of work. There are no shortcuts, but here are three principles to keep in mind:
- Bring along your people. You can’t lead if they’re not following. As MIT CISR notes, you can promote an innovation mentality in everyone by democratizing your training and letting each of your “thousand flowers” decide just how, and how much, they’ll bloom. Commit as much funding as you can to large-scale learning, both online and hands-on. And reward the culture you want more of: Innovation, risk-taking, fast-fail and equally fast-insight. Be sure to prioritize your middle management as agents of change. If they don’t mobilize to update their skills and embrace less-hierarchical structures, you won’t achieve a shift to more agile ways of working.
- Align with your customers—everywhere. That’s all up and down and across the org chart, from the board room to the C-suite to middle management to your front-line workers. Everyone needs to hear customer input, because they’re talking with different types of customers at different levels of their own organizations. And you’ve got to build teams and processes and incentives to mine that customer input to the max.
- Be ambidextrous. Don’t think that future-ready leaders have a single leadership style. Sometimes it’s best to charge ahead, sometimes it’s best to step back and let your teams take the lead. There’s power in the collective; use it for good. These are the people who will implement your fail-fast cycles, who will hear customer feedback firsthand, and who have options in a highly fluid job market. Learning when to let your people take the lead won’t just make them more valuable; it will make them feel more valuable, encouraging them to do their best.