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Thinking People Breakfast: Learning

Thinking People: Learning

Exploring the changing role of the leader in a workforce being transformed by technologies such as automation and AI.


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Key ideas from our latest event

Our Thinking People breakfast events offer fresh insight for HR professionals helping their organisations navigate volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

At our December 2017 event, we welcomed:

  • Ann Mahon, Professor of Health Leadership, Alliance Manchester Business School
  • Hilary Spencer, Director, Government Equalities Office.    

Our speakers explored the changing role of the leader in a workforce being transformed by technologies such as automation and AI.

Leadership needs to become a team effort

What it means to be a leader is changing as organisations reshape to meet major shifts in the business environment. These include the growing need to excel at customer experience, the challenge of unlocking value from assets such as IP, the shift away from selling products to selling services, and the rise of automation and its impact on the workforce.

These challenges are so complex that individual leaders alone can no longer drive the response. Instead leadership needs to become a team effort. To bring this about, leaders must be able to activate change network across their organisations, tell stories that interpret and inspire, and establish an environment where teams can deliver the changes the organisation needs.

‘Every moment offers the opportunity for leadership’

If leadership is for everyone, then opportunities to show it exist in every job. Professor Ann Mahon believes that every moment offers the opportunity for leadership.

Her view of leadership is grounded in two pieces of simple wisdom: ‘love each other’ and ‘set a good example’. For business, she interprets the imperative to love each other as ‘tough empathy’. Effective leaders show they care both about the job at hand and about the people who are doing it. To set a good example, leaders must recognise that actions speak louder than words. They must ask people to ‘do as I do’, not ‘do as I say’.

How to develop a new type of leader?

The shift towards a more distributed form of leadership is reflecting in the demise of one particularly common leadership model: the charismatic superman. Organisations are now looking to develop a much wider repertoire of leadership types.

If organisations want new types of leader, they also want new types of leadership development. They expect universities and business schools to provide clear evidence of the impact of leadership development programmes and the return on investment they yield. And they want universities to do more than help leaders acquire new skills and knowledge; making sure leaders can transfer these into practice is just as important.

As a result, universities increasingly offer programmes incorporating action and experiential learning. Many deliver these blended programmes through creative alliances, such as the one between Alliance Manchester Business School and KPMG.

Unleashing the potential of the whole workforce

Women continue to be under-represented in leadership roles as evidenced by the UK’s gender pay gap (GPG), which currently stands at just over 18%. Government measures to try and reduce the gap include offering free childcare, requiring large employers to publish their GPG and encouraging girls to consider careers in high-paid sectors. But organisation can also take action to capitalise on the potential of the whole workforce – men and women.

Thinking about who the organisation is designed for is key. Many big organisations are set up to work for just one type of person – for example, someone who joins at 21, takes no time out and has the opportunity to complete further training/study as their career develops. The focus on a single type of employee can blind the organisation to the talent and potential that exists in others who don’t fit the mould

Helping leaders lead people who aren’t like them

A senior team that looks like the organisation it leads will find it easier to win trust and drive through the cultural change necessary to establish a more diverse organisation. The way leadership development programmes are designed is critical too. Programmes should be evidence based and use high-quality data to demonstrate their impact on diversity and inclusion. Each part of the programme should be assessed through the diversity and inclusion lens – D&I isn’t something that can be bolted on. Finally, programmes should feature experiential interventions to help leaders explore and understand diversity in their groups.

It’s OK to be fallible

The fact that leaders aren’t expected to have all the answers any more, and that organisations are asking all their employees to act like leaders, is driving the issue of psychological safety to the fore. Organisations need to create an environment where people feel secure enough to try and fail, and then try again. This type of resilience will become an increasingly valuable as employment becomes less secure and less predictable.

Creating a culture where people feel secure enough to develop and grow comes from the top. How the board reacts when confronted with divergent views, either from within or from outside its ranks, is telling. What happens when people ‘speak truth to power’? What does leaders’ reaction signal to the wider organisation? And do senior leaders really understand ‘what it’s like to be on the receiving end of me’?

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