Leadership challenges facing business today

As the business world becomes more complex, so do leadership skills – as will be revealed this month in deepest Herefordshire.

Time was when leadership largely comprised barking orders to inferiors who then barked them on to their inferiors. How today’s organisational leaders must wish for such a simple model to follow. Alas, those heady days are gone. In today’s changing business environment, leaders face complex issues such as those identified by Herefordshire-based The Leadership Trust.

The charitable foundation, founded in 1975, is focusing its annual conference, taking place on 18-19 September, around six leadership challenges. These are: generational leadership – managing an older workforce, as well as the digital generation; sustainability – protecting today’s environment and addressing consumers’ needs; virtual leadership – leading an internet-based environment; the developing world – responding to a changing economy; diversity – leading a workforce comprising ethnic minorities, mature workers etc; and globalisation – managing an extended workforce.

“These challenges are the result of the conversations we have had with leaders on programmes at the trust,” says Sharon Turnbull, director at The Leadership Trust’s centre for applied leadership research. “They include emerging themes and the primary concerns of clients, organisations and course participants. We have also been talking to numerous people and attending academic conferences, so we know that these are the areas of primary concern and the issues that people are reflecting.”

Although they are presented as six separate strands, Turnbull says that many of the challenges interconnect and depending on the organisation and timing, different themes will hold more significance. While sustainability and generational leadership are key concerns, she claims that in terms of leadership development, reflecting on just one of those challenges will develop leaders who can respond to, and address, the other issues.

Systematic change

As daunting as they appear, Institute of Leadership and Management chief executive Kim Parish insists these themes are not new. “We have run big stories on all of these issues over the past 15 months,” she says. “What is interesting is that this research puts all of these challenges in one place – and in doing so, highlights the tremendous systemic change facing executives. Virtual leadership is a perfect example of the challenge for leaders – and highlights the schizophrenic position they’re in nowadays. The key thing for companies to explore though is how these challenges manifest themselves to junior managers.”

Chartered Management Institute (CMI) head of public affairs Petra Wilton agrees these are not new challenges, but points out that everyone is still grappling with them, making the research a helpful reminder of some of the issues on the agenda. “One of the key areas of leadership is the importance of managing change – and that comes through here,” she says.

“This research also highlights that leadership isn’t an innate quality, but that through job experience, training routes and effective management, it can be enhanced and developed.”

The CMI has also registered a need for much greater collaborative working and leadership styles, says Wilton. “An increasing number of organisations are working in partnership with different sectors – private-public, for example,” she explains. “One of the key routes to these skills is via coaching and mentoring.”

Meeting the challenge

To address these issues, learning and development departments should begin with themselves, says Turnbull. “Think of the starting point as self-awareness and understanding yourself – because that is a good starting point for understanding other people,” she advises.

“These six challenges are about winning hearts and minds and inspiring people; they’re about how you engage people. Some of it comes down to learning and development professionals helping people gain wider experience of leadership challenges. It is vital that leaders learn how to build trusting relationships in teams, how to value diverse talents and skills, how to see beyond the superficial, and how to build teams with a high-performing positive atmosphere.

“Our research has found that people can learn a lot from being dropped in at the deep end,” Turnbull adds. “With experiential leadership development, they’ll learn very quickly, but you need to support them. You can’t address these challenges by reading alone – you have to experience them. Coaching and mentoring have an important value for this because the coach or mentor will ask those challenging questions of the individual.”

For Wilton, identifying and recognising these challenges is an essential element. “They need to be openly acknowledged – particularly in terms of which ones are pertinent to your organisation, because you may not be affected by all of them. This should be followed by an audit to see how those changes affect you, how you want to respond and whether you have the appropriate skills to tackle them.”

DIY leadership

From September, the Institute of Leadership and Management (ILM) is offering its management and leadership vocationally related qualifications (VRQs) in unit form. The organisation says this will help businesses address the six leadership challenges by allowing UK businesses to customise courses for leadership and management teams.

The VRQ units will cover core and specialist areas of management, including effective meetings for managers, managing stress in the workplace and marketing for managers.

ILM claims it is the first awarding body in the UK to offer a unit-based training portfolio. Each unit has a credit value (one credit represents approximately 10 notional learning hours), and these can contribute towards an award, a certificate or a diploma.

The ILM claims this form of training will enable delegates to progress to a more advanced qualification without having to repeat units.

For more information on The Leadership Trust Conference 2007, go to www.leadership.org.uk/conference2007

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