Training future leaders

Future chief executives must be equipped to deal with the challenges of a fast-changing business world

The modern world of business is changing faster than at any other point in living memory and in a way that makes it virtually impossible to predict how the landscape might look in even a few years’ time. Much of this is due to new digital technologies, with many sectors and organisations facing significant disruption as a result of artificial intelligence, machine-learning and the internet of things, and this will require new skills from those who
lead businesses.

“A lot of traditional management education is around how to exploit new opportunities,” says Hari Mann, professor of practice at Ashridge Hult Executive Education. “But this will also require people to understand how to bring into this model a sense-check, not just around whether it’s profitable, but whether it also meets the requirement to be socially responsible.”

The modern chief executive needs to think about the impact such technologies will have on their existing workforce, but also ensuring any new business models do not cause harm. “The recent issues with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have shown the damage that can be done if people lose trust in an organisation,” says Professor Mann. “For the first time, people and investors are now questioning the future of Facebook and whether this is a model that is still sustainable. These questions are right at the heart of what future CEOs will have to answer if they are to build sustainable businesses.”

As well as being able to demonstrate far greater moral and social responsibility, future chief executives also need strong skills in engagement, sensitivity and collectiveness. Ashridge has recently conducted research into what it terms the “ego-eco perspective on leadership”, both of which are vital tenets of the skills required by a modern leader.

“What we call ‘ego’ is having the strength to give a sense of direction and help manage the organisation to develop a vision and a goal,” explains Paul Griffith, professor of practice at Ashridge. “For a lot of organisations, it’s about the social purpose and what it is going to do for the world.” This is particularly important in attracting the very top talent, particularly those from the millennial generation, who tend to be far more picky in the type of business they work for than previous generations.

This is complemented by the “eco” side, which looks at how the various complex ecosystems within an organisation work together. “CEOs need to think about how they can make and leverage connections within the organisation, seeing the interdependencies in the system and creating an organisational climate where they can give people the freedom to make the most of their talent,” says Professor Griffith. This moves away from a traditional command-and-control management approach, he adds.

Alongside all this, businesses are also coming to realise that they need to pay more attention to ensuring their executives are able to function at their full potential, from a personal perspective. This is another area Ashridge has looked at, focusing on lessons the business world can draw from the sports industry.

“We’ve been doing quite a bit of work about how you get executives to be at their peak,” says Professor Griffith. “There’s still a macho culture of not needing much sleep, socialising and maybe drinking a bit too much, but that doesn’t help you get into your peak performance zone.” Executives need to get a better understanding of the need for a healthy lifestyle, he adds, including exercise, sleep and a healthy diet, and complementing this by relatively new techniques such
as mindfulness.

Organisations are also starting to understand that equipping future chief executives, leaders and managers with the skills they need for the challenges of tomorrow needs to be a long-term and evolutionary project. “Those aspiring to be leaders need to think about the core element of leadership and management training, but they will also have to think about these new areas,” says Professor Mann. “If you start thinking about these things a year before you’re destined to be CEO it’s too late.”

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