Over the past three weeks, we’ve explored the changes in leadership talent that have occurred since we opened our doors as Organizational Psychologists back in 1976. In the first post, we looked at the understanding of leadership in the beginning. Next, we moved into the late 90s and early 2000s where the definition of leadership really started to “fatten up”, and last week we explored how leadership talent is in our current environment. This week we look at leadership in the future.

The Future is Coming Quickly

The reality is that with the rapid-paced world we live in, changes in the leadership space are happening more quickly than ever. In an effort to remain smart and up-to-date, for both our clients and ourselves, we strive to not only get the pulse on the here and now, but also to deliberately forecast what’s on the horizon.

This week you’ll get a flavor of what’s on the minds of Managing Partner Keith Goudy, Founding Partner Carl Robinson, and Partners Mike TobinJacki Ackerman, and Dave Sowinski as they provide insight into the future of leadership talent. In many ways, what they see coming is an acceleration of the trends that are already in place, but there also larger changes in the environment that will necessitate new and innovative solutions.

“You can bet that technology is going to continue to evolve much more rapidly than it is now,” said Keith. Jacki echoed this sentiment: “Technology is going to be huge. I think how people work is going to be a lot different… it’s going to be even more remote and more global.”

Our Next Generation of Leaders: Millennials

What do the changes brought on by technology mean for leaders? “This is where millennials and beyond have such a head start. The term ‘technology-infused’ – everything is technology, even from an early age,” Keith said.

In some ways, this increase of technology may not bring the same drastic shift in the futurepeople-coffee-notes-tea-large as it has in the past, for the simple fact that every generation from here on out will be steeped in technology. As Carl put it, “The ability to actually use large datasets, use the technology, not just know about it, not just cooperate” will intensify, but with the leaders of the future using iPads in the stroller, this comfort with technology begins to feel innate.

Jacki mentioned other expectations that in the not so distant past were considered “new” but have already assumed
the status of “a right”. “I don’t think we talked about transparency before. And now everyone wants transparency, and wants to know more, and they feel like they have a right to know more. I didn’t feel like I needed to know about [Vantage’s] business when I started here [in 2002] but I think people expect that now, and I will now expect that in the future.” We can only imagine that there are other changes in employee expectations that will continue to become embedded, some with clear consequences for the structure of organizations.

For example, we talked last week about the “new contract” between employee and employer that is predicated not on long-term employment but on development, progress, and skill growth. We could extrapolate that to a continued change in organizational structure that is aligned with this short-term, goal-focused relationship.

You can see this happening already in the way, as Jacki put it, “Everything’s now done in project [teams].” A great, often diverse and cross-functional group is put together to accomplish a goal, get the most out of it, get it done in the best way, and then the individuals in the group move on.

Not only is this beneficial for an organization’s ability to capitalize on collaboration, but it allows employees to challenge themselves, pick up new skillsets, and importantly, work together with their colleagues in a way that builds relationships and spurs longer-term connections. All of which, might we add, have been cited as increasingly important to our next generation of leaders.

New Ways of Working for the Next Generation

“Organizations will continue to be increasingly less and less classic in their structure,” Carl said. “Alliances, partnerships, virtual organizations, pop-ups – what a wonderful image of these pop-up stores – organizations that are temporary. Much more dynamic, much less traditional. Leaders that know how to span boundaries and see the value of these kinds of alliances and soft-walled organizations [will be considered talent]. Think of this: forming a really solid temporary relationship. It’s almost a contradiction. But I think that’s a skillset.”

This week, at our firm’s annual strategy offsite, we had the pleasure of listening to Gustavo Grodnitzky discuss our multi-generational workforce. Millennials (aka Generation Y) are already 53.5% of the workforce and that number will only go up – they are, truly, our next generation of leaders. This is important as it suggests a need to not only understand the mindset of millennials, but also to ensure organizations change and adapt to meet these new needs and expectations.

We plan to dive into this topic in an upcoming blog series, but briefly: Millennials are purported to value working “for purpose” over “for profit”. Now, more than ever, the next generation is driven by a need to contribute in a way that is meaningful and in some way, changes the human experience.  As Keith put it, “I can’t imagine my daughter [who is currently 8] working somewhere where she didn’t think she was making the world a better place. Because that’s how she’s being trained to think.”

While the “technology-infused” next generation of leaders may be at an advantage in terms of their ability to leverage technology, there are other technology-driven changes that will have an impact on leadership talent. The speed and complexity we talked about last week isn’t going away. In fact, as Mike said, “the velocity of change you’re experiencing today is the slowest it’s going to be for the rest of your life.”

[There will be] more need for future leaders, in this kind of chaotic, dynamic, very ambiguous, turbulent world, to create meaning and coherence for people. – Carl Robinson

Think of the “gig economy” or “sharing economy” which has seemingly spread so quickly. While there are certainly some serious bumps along the way, it’s alignment with the core values and expectations of the next generation of leaders make it very unlikely that the gig economy will disappear completely. It’s also a completely different way of working and receiving services; it depends on speed and, partially because of its newness, is complex. Take for example, the idea of on-demand consulting websites – where you can quickly log-in, and have immediate access to experts from all walks of life. Talk about a game-changer.

What it means for “Leadership Talent”

In essence, “leaders will need to be far more nimble,” Carl said. “[There will be] more need for future leaders, in this kind of chaotic, dynamic, very ambiguous, turbulent world, to create meaning and coherence for people.” The bar will keep going up on “thought leadership, mental agility, capacity to hold a lot of things at one time, multitasking,” said Mike. As Dave put it, “being adaptable, being open to feedback, being willing to learn…mental agility, that’s going to be very important, because how do you plan for what’s not there?”

“What it means to be global is going to be change. We’re beginning to get to other parts of the world faster than we do now,” Keith said, “but the technology will make it more seamless to connect with people in Europe or Asia. [The world] is going to be increasingly interconnected, so being more a student of the world [will be necessary].” “Being adaptable to diversity,” as Mike put it, is “absolutely going to be necessary. Today you would note, oh isn’t that special how she can do that, but in the future, anything less than that would be inadequate.”

Demographic shifts will also play a role in accelerating changes in leadership talent and talent management. “The war for talent is going to become different,” Keith said. “Just wait until we have a hard time finding people to do jobs [as a result of declining population size – see George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years].”

The Rise and Fall (hopefully) of the Overwhelmed Worker

There are some parts of the current world of leadership that we would expect to diminish.  As Jacki describes it now, “Everyone has a voice which is really good, but it’s a lot. It’s overwhelming. You hear the voices on your device spouting all night long. There are so many opinions out there. I’ve never heard so much about the Overwhelmed Worker.”

always onWhile we wouldn’t expect the voices to lessen – or not in the sense that a diversity of opinion is given credence in the workplace – we do think that possessing the means to handle it will be of increasing importance, and expectations around communication will change. “The ‘Always On’ mentality is not sustainable,” Jacki said. We would expect that in the future, how we work (or how we think about work) will shift such that it’s not all consuming – perhaps four day work weeks will become the norm – because an overwhelmed worker is an ineffective one.

“The only hope for work-life balance is that somebody else is doing something so you don’t have to,” Mike said. “And if there aren’t any somebodies [to do it] than you have to always be paying attention.”  But will there even be “somebodies” in the same way there are now? “Will the interaction between people and automation be the same as it is now?” Keith asked. “What about artificial intelligence and how that can interact with people? I’ve seen the Matrix so I hope we always need leaders. In the end, you need humans laying eyes on issues and problems and taking everything into account, and adapting.”


Preparing for Leadership in the Future

There are so many more compelling points to be made, but we’ll leave you with this important point made by Mike: “With this idea of change, the question becomes: can you exert control over it, by choosing a direction and doing it rather than just adapting to it? I think at some level that’s what we’ve always meant by driving change rather than just reacting to it.”

At this stage, we’d assert that, yes we can make choices that set direction for the future rather than just reacting to it. For example, as mentioned before, we need to proactively change the path that is leading us to a prevalence of overwhelmed workers.


What other paths can you proactively choose now that will help you, your teams, and your organizations prepare for this turbulent, yet undeniably exciting future?


This post was co-authored by Lees Parkin and  Stefanie Mockler.