Leaders are grappling with some big and complex issues: increasing turnover, widening skills gaps, and elusive talent.
The problems often feel insurmountable, and they’re also universal.
As we continue to observe and hear about these challenges, we find ourselves coming back to the following questions: What do we know and what do we still need to learn to help leaders become as effective as possible? How can we help them more easily navigate this environment and solve these problems?
Using the research in leadership development as our guide, here’s what we know: The environment has changed. It’s more complex, volatile, and unpredictable. We also know that the skills leaders need to navigate this type of environment have changed. Leaders need more than just a high intellect or an ability to achieve financial results. Finally, we know the methods used to develop leaders have not changed (much). We’re pretty confident this is not news to most of you.
So why, then, are leaders struggling to lead with fresh eyes, new perspectives, and greater capabilities?
We believe it boils down to the idea that leaders are no longer developing fast enough or in the right ways to match the new environment in which we live and work. But we thought it was important to test the hypothesis, so we invited a group of HR leaders to participate in an exclusive focus group where we discussed Future-Focused Leadership: Unpacking today’s biggest business challenges and the greatest gaps in leader development.
Through the discussion, we hoped to explore what’s not working and what might be more helpful. We also wanted to understand what they (as HR leaders) need personally to be able to navigate this new environment and help others do the same.
The following themes emerged from the group:
Navigating remote and hybrid work
Many leaders are still coping with this carryover from Covid as they continue to test remote and hybrid work. Some of the most common problems it produces relate to boundary-setting and prioritization. But even the basic things—like which channels we use to communicate or how to effectively participate in virtual meetings—have created friction.
Failure to catch up and keep up
As things continue to change outside of each organization’s four walls, most leaders are having a hard time keeping pace. And because change is rapid and constant, it perpetuates a reactive mindset. “I feel like we’ve been under a three-year stress test,” one leader said.
Managing by exception
If there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few years, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to any problem. Leaders can no longer rely on “best practices” and instead have to test, experiment and sense their way into many situations. This has required them to flex new (often undeveloped) muscles. “Critical thinking and swift decision making becomes hard because they have not been pushed to do this in the past—especially as it relates to people situations,” said one participant in our group.
Inability (or unwillingness) to adjust
HR leaders recognize we’re in a new age, but unless we continue to adjust, we’re not going to be very successful. “We need to adjust expectations and our whole way of doing business,” one participant said. Many leaders have had a hard time making this shift in mindset and behavior—in some cases, they don’t want to, but in most cases, they just haven’t figured out
Culture and connection
Many leaders have struggled to figure out how to recreate the connections they previously built in person. “Relationships happened outside of meetings, but right now, the only time people interface is in meetings,” one participant said. “Unless we’re actively creating that, it’s a miss for a lot of companies.”
With more and different things to figure out every day, many leaders are faced with burnout and decision fatigue.”The expectations are so different now; we need to meet needs in spaces we didn’t have to think about five to seven years ago,” said one leader. “There are additional layers in every communication and every business decision. You have to pay attention to the nuances in emotional needs and wellbeing of the person impacted by the decision, not just the business.”
From our perspective, these themes clearly demonstrate that leaders need to develop more quickly—and we likely need a different approach to delivering that development.
When we asked the group what they wished they could do differently for the leaders they support, the response was unanimous. Everyone pointed to the need for greater development of soft skills and the “people stuff.” They mentioned things like cultivating greater self-awareness, empathy, emotional intelligence.
“I wish I could give them all one-on-one coaching,” said one participant. “More than ever, we need that kind of individualized development because the expectations are so much higher in today’s world.”
Supporting HR leaders
When we asked our HR leaders what they need to be able to navigate today’s challenges, they named some common tactics and tools: A deeper understanding of trends and emerging opportunities in leadership development. Community-building, resources, and support from outside of their organizations. But perhaps the most thoughtful response we heard was this: “I need to work on becoming more comfortable coaching others through these challenges versus defaulting to thinking that I need to know everything. I don’t have to know everything or be an expert, but I can be a guide and a coach.”
As we reflected following the session, something struck us: Nothing we heard from this group was unexpected.
And the trends pointing toward where development is needed aren’t just unsurprising in our current context—they’ve persisted for as long as we’ve worked with leaders. The limited self-awareness, the lack of empathy and emotional intelligence, and even the inability to set priorities and establish accountability are age-old, pre-pandemic problems. They have perhaps shifted a bit or been exacerbated in recent circumstances, but they certainly are not new.
So, we have to ask ourselves: What is it going to take? What is it going to take for leaders to start leading differently? What is it going to take for organizations to be willing to invest differently in leaders’ capabilities and capacities? And maybe most importantly, what is it going to take for us as HR leaders to advocate for their development?
You can learn more about Transitions Coaching and meet our team here. And if you’re curious about the tools, resources, and support we offer that can accelerate your leadership development, then reach out to us today.