Last week, Managing Partner Keith Goudy, Founding Partner Carl Robinson, and Partners Mike Tobin, Jacki Ackerman, and Dave Sowinski discussed the transition that occurred in understanding leadership talent–and how to select, develop, and retain that talent–in the late 90s through the early 2000s. We left on one of Mike’s always insightful points that illuminates what we expect from leadership talent now, “You have to cross a threshold to be skilled enough [as a leader]. But that threshold keeps going up. The bar keeps going up on expectations.”

What’s Behind the Increasing Bar for Talent?

“Work in general,” Jacki said, “is so much more complex than it ever used to be.” It follows, then, that what it takes to be a talented leader with longer term potential has become more complex and nuanced, and as such, requires a new set of skills. To reiterate Carl’s compelling point (which is a thread that’s appeared throughout this series): it’s mostly a similar set of leadership skills, just “fattened up”.

“I never heard about innovation when I started working here,” Jacki added. “It wasn’t even something you discussed. I think the words ‘trust’ and ‘developing followership’ were still used back then but we see them in different ways. Now it’s about really empowering someone and engaging someone, whereas before it was more delegation. I think the focus on relationships has taken a whole new meaning because of the focus on teams, because leaders can’t really do anything on their own anymore. Leadership presence has always been important but what it means to have good leadership presence has changed a bit. Before it was being able to be at a table with your leaders and seem credible and competent and now it’s, what is your voice? and how you persuade? The term ambition is now seen as a little bit negative, seen as trying to get ahead and a little bit competitive. Now it’s more like, what’s your vision and how this is going to play out versus just an ambitious person. These terms are changing.”

The Widespread Availability of Data – Information Overload

“Access to information is unbelievable,” Carl said.Information is simply everywhere. Imagine how hard it used to be to get information. ‘How’s our business doing?’ ‘I don’t know.’ It was a major production to figure this out. Now this data is endlessly available, and creates a whole set of problems by itself.”  When discussing the insane amount of data and information leaders are faced with each and every day, Jacki commented, “The number one thing I hear from leaders before assessments is, ‘can this candidate focus on the right things?’ And that’s something I don’t remember ever hearing about in the beginning, I don’t remember that being key. The focus areas were usually very clear.”

While we might have once emphasized the importance of being detail-oriented, now we’re assessing whether an individual can sift through the noise and hone in on the right information. It’s a skill that is becoming increasingly important in our data-charged world.

How Business Gets Done Now

Technology and the widespread availability of data and information has changed the speed, complexity, and scale of doing business. Said Mike, “The velocity of change that [Millennials] were born into was so much faster than any change [their] parents had ever even seen.” Technology changes our approach to communication and our connectedness with each other and our customers. It changes our expectations and influences our choices, in small ways, but also in some very substantial ways. “You can look at some of our clients where their business model hasn’t been challenged in 30 years,” said Keith, “and now it’s been challenged four times in the last four years.”

The shifting context and environment requires leaders to shift their approach to maintain their success, and changes what necessitates leadership effectiveness for those of us observing leaders in action. “The business community has become more global in the last 15-20 years,” Keith points out, “you can see how fast things change. A company can be doing great and then they’re out of business in a year. Massive companies.” A business’ sustainability and viability are seemingly teetering on the brink: one day you’re enjoying the fruits of your success and the next, you’re knocked out of the game without so much as a warning.

The need for adaptability and learning agility in leadership was the one thing that every single Partner explicitly mentioned in their interview.

As if being able to lead in increasingly complex and changing situations wasn’t enough, the current business landscape also requires leaders to demonstrate learning agility, to be able to quickly adapt and shift direction in a variety of situations. Why? Because it’s no longer certain (or consistently predictable) what’s coming down the pike, at least not in any long-term sense. We won’t quote anyone here, because the need for adaptability and learning agility in leadership was the one thing that every single Partner explicitly mentioned in their interview.

The Increasing Rise of the Empathetic Leader

“There’s been a lot of research on the characteristics of leaders that translate into effective leadership,” Dave said, “and the research is very clear on this, the characteristics that would be deemed typically feminine – inclusion, demonstrating concern and sensitivity – show a much stronger relationship to overall leadership effectiveness than characteristics that would be typically defined as masculine – being assertive, dominant, and heavy-handed.”

With a world in constant turbulence, where meaning is unclear and next steps might be foggy, it’s easy to see why a more empathetic leader who acts with sensitivity and inclusion might be more effective in getting people to follow.  The effectiveness of these characteristics also underscores the shifts in the workplace towards teamwork; these characteristics also lend themselves to better collaboration.

Move Over Individuals, Teams are Leading the Way

While leaders are certainly front and center in this changing environment, we’ve also seen the importance that teamwork plays.  The way we go about getting things done has changed drastically as well (think back to the ever-present “results-focus” we discussed earlier in this series). The days of siloed employees churning away at their desks are becoming old hat – rather, we’re increasingly drawing upon cross-functional, project-based teams to collaborate, draw upon each other’s knowledge, and ultimately, complement one another’s’ skills to deliver.

Jacki said it best: “Org redesign never used to be such a big thing, and now everyone’s moving from the functional siloed mentality to working on highly functioning teams. Everything’s so global, there are so many different ways of working that if you don’t put a team on these things I don’t think anything’s going to get done.”

Remember what Carl called the “upside-down-organization” that came from watching Japan? “There’s less positional leadership now,” Jacki said, “you’re not focused on one’s position in the organization, you’re focused on what they bring to the table…If you have cool ideas and want to get heard, it doesn’t really matter what your position is anymore.” As Dave put it, “there’s been a much greater shift to more inclusion and treating people in a respectful, non-hierarchical way.” Working in teams allows and, if done right, encourages this type of information sharing and brainstorming. The power comes when a group of smart people put their heads together and come up with something that exceeds what they could have done individually. It’s synergy at its finest and if you’ve ever seen it (or even better, been a part of it), you can’t deny its allure.

The Buck Doesn’t Stop at Identifying Talented Leaders

The increased complexity of what it takes to be an effective leader doesn’t happen in a bubble. Quite the contrary – it occurs in a larger organizational system that has important cascading effects. To stick with our most descriptive quote, the “fattening up” of leadership skills directly impacts the broader talent management space.

As Carl points out, “The maturity of the space, of talent management, is a radical shift.” For example, Jacki said, “I feel like we’ve come a long way on what talent development really is. It’s not just hiring the right person, it’s how you onboard them, it’s how you develop them, it’s how you focus on their careers…and career progression is a whole different ball game now. Before it just meant promoting somebody–that’s your career progression–but now there’s much more around it. What are you learning? Are they marketable skills or is just a title, just a promotion?”

Expectations from the next generation of leaders are starting to play a crucial part in how organizations are configured (think of the flex workspace of tech companies), and how leadership talent is defined (think of the speed with which Millennials change careers and the ripple impact that has throughout talent management).

As Mike put it: “the contract [between employer and employee] is really highly focused on opportunities for growth and development and not necessarily job security. And absolutely not long term employment, unless that’s what seems fun and attractive. How does this new ‘contract’ change the relationship between business strategy and people strategy, if a key talent is no longer a long-term bet?”


Next week, we’ll look at what the Partners said when we asked them to imagine what their kids/grandkids will need to lead effectively.


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