Article (April-2020)


Building next-gen leaders : What to commit and where to start ?

Bimal Rath

Designation : -   Founder & Managing Director

Organization : -  Think Talent Services, Gurgaon


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How is the concept of next-gen leadership evolving in the face of current business situations?

BR The nature of challenges for leaders is shifting significantly. The technological advances in almost every field, and the digital progress, is throwing up possibilities galore. Adoption of new ways of thinking and doing, adapting to the changing environment constantly, and dealing with constant flux are some of the challenges for leaders.

Customers will have many choices and the access to these choices creating abundance. The customers and employees at large will also have a much stronger voice, opinions and the means to quickly share them and create influence others. The key question for organizational leaders would be : "How and what value do I create which is fulfilling a customer/consumer need, and can lead to a sustainable model which takes care of all stakeholders - shareholders, customers and employees?" We are already seeing many organizations not being able to cope with the changes around us, impacting stakeholders in different ways. One very big challenge leaders will face is about how they generate insights from so much information available. Another is about building patterns from constantly moving variables. Understanding patterns around us in almost every sphere (be it supply chain, environmental aspects, government policy, customer preferences, talent preferences or other area) and be able to create a plan and execute in a agile manner will be required. And since patterns will be changing regularly, the leader has to be on the toes, agile and energetic at all times.

What are the likely challenges that an organization encounters in building its future leadership pipeline?

BR Organizations like stability in external factors to be able to plan, invest ahead of the curve and minimize risk. In the current and future context, this is exactly the antithesis of what they will need to change in terms of helping leaders learn.

The biggest challenges will be in balancing the ongoing with trying out new ways. The closest analogy is trying to change wheels when driving a car. Organizations have a set of rules and ways of doing things. They will have to build a culture where these are not sacred cows any more.

Building openness, humility and willingness to experiment in the current crop of decision makers would itself be a challenge.

There are no tried and tested ways which answer all questions in this context for the future. Organizations that are naturally more risk taking and willing to learn, have an appreciation of differences and encourage questioning and cross cultural pollination are likely to face lesser challenges.

What are the key skills and capabilities that are deemed essential in a true next-gen leader?

BR It is important to note that in a leadership role, these challenges are not only about the self but about carrying everyone around oneself and helping them understand and deal with these challenges. Leaders are expected to lead others through the messy terrain, crises and are naturally called 'dealers in hope'.

  • Comfort with quick failure, and constant experimentation in any project.
  • Learning from all and every source, and be able to quickly sift down to what is relevant in one's context.
  • Learning either one very deep skill and be outstanding at it, OR
  • Be very good at a variety of skills allowing for integration and leveraging a broad set of skills.

Collaboration (all levels, internal and external) and cross boundary reaching out and networking will be essential. Maintaining personal balance in the face of reverses and personal courage and resilience will be key.

What are some of the best ways to prepare next-gen leaders? How to build a comprehensive 'talent who can lead' pipeline?

BR Building a great leadership pipeline may need organizations to work at these five factors :

  • Learn to appreciate, encourage and grow leaders who are more willing to take risks, try out new things and have tasted failure, and have built on these failures.
  • Allow a framework for constant debate and dialogue in evolving different types of leaders without a standard template.
  • Be more conscious of the fact that individual leaders are a product of the environment. Help curate journeys for potential leaders, and co-create them with the individual.
  • Go away from the traditional competence models which may have limited relevance. Look for and develop learning agility, courage, resilience, ability to build trust and judgment in leaders.
  • Focus even more on value based and purpose led leadership. These will be absolutely critical in the face of the constant evolution.

How HR can contribute in developing next Gen. Leadership?

BR This may sound very provocative but HR may need to first re-invent itself a bit to be able to contribute to building leadership pipelines. Here are a few suggestions :

  • Learn the language of the new business models, especially digital. This is not about the semantics and superficial words but really understanding what it means.
  • Understand the impact it is having on people, teams and leaders. Define in one's own context how you could support.
  • Appreciate that the newer generation of talent is not just about work and pay. They also need ethical workplaces and organizations that care for the environment and sustainability, among other things. They need to be partnered with rather than dealt with.
  • Build deep skills in facilitation, coaching and having outstanding conversations, and help employees, managers and leaders build these. Soft skills, apart from digital will be the key to future organization success.
  • Constantly evaluate and adjust the HR, leadership and leader building agenda and live up to some of the things that embody great leaders. Try and be a role model in at least some things.
  • Show adaptability and agility in all that HR does, that is a great advertisement for HR and supports leadership and culture building.

Where is the role of communication and innovation fit into the gamut of this critical business strategy of today?

BR Both are absolutely critical. The nature of communication may have changed but human characteristics have remained in many ways the same. We are all (still) social animals. Respect, empathy, understanding and agility (not just speed but meaningful, thoughtful, personalized communication) will be critical. Both digital mediums and person led mediums will need to be impactful by design. Listening as a part of communication and asking the right questions will be key to success, as no one individual or team or organization will have all the answers. Discovery as a process will be critical. As far as innovation goes, the mantra possibly has to be "fail fast". There will be lots of noise and possibilities. Those who take risks and move one quickly to the next stage and learn from with things that have not worked will have larger innovation impact.

How to harness technology in building an effective next-gen leadership team?

BR What I say here is self evident and perhaps a bit superficial. The best way to harness technology in any space is to get people to experience the power of it first. They will then find linkages, solutions and their own ways of harnessing technology. I have the experience of helping companies where many core leadership and talent development processes are moving to more and more digital-for example, assessments, learning, career management and coaching. As people experience these for themselves, it creates a pull. There are also benefits in terms of reach, agility and cost. And while technology can be used meaningfully in this space, I would recommend that we think of it as an enabler and not an end in itself. Blending technology led experiences with immersive people experiences and dialogue processes would be best for leadership and leader development agendas.