What kinds of leaders will equip organisations to survive crisis and disruption?

The current coronavirus outbreak highlights the critical role of HRDs in developing, cultivating and retaining leaders of the future, says Áine Hurley

Disruption and uncertainty are ever-present (and particularly acute) features of today’s economy.  Odgers Berndtson research reveals a tangible crisis of confidence in leaders regarding their organisation’s ability to manage disruption successfully across multiple geographies and sectors.  From technological advances to climate change, economic instability, changing customer behaviours and a global health emergency, the role of business leaders has never been more complex. 

Developed with Harvard Business Review Analytic Services, the Odgers Berndtson Leadership Confidence Index, recently launched, is based on responses from nearly 2,000 senior managers of companies worldwide. We wanted to gauge how well global business leaders are coping with disruption – and found a tangible crisis of confidence in their ability to manage it successfully. Worldwide, only 15 per cent of managers are confident their senior leadership will succeed.  

The findings underline the changing profile of senior leaders in successfully guiding organisations through uncertainty and disruption, such as the world is experiencing now. At the majority of organisations, over 50 per cent of senior managers report low levels of confidence in the ability of senior leaders to navigate disruption successfully. Specifically the leadership’s vision and preparedness, or lack thereof, was cited as the biggest risk to the organisation.

The study also reveals a significant confidence gap in the CEO and senior executive leadership. This gap is the difference between the importance attached to critical roles in leading through disruption, and the confidence placed in those individuals currently in roles. The gap is most stark for chief executives, who 85 per cent of respondents believe have the most critical role to play. However, 40 per cent doubt that their current CEO can deliver consistently over the next five years. 

The confidence gap applies across the C-suite. Just 31 per cent of executives are confident that their organisation’s CTOs, CPO/CHRO/CEEOs, CFOs and COOs will succeed, yet believe they all have crucial roles to play in identifying commercial opportunities, preparing an engaged and adaptable workforce, and turning innovations into action. 

When it comes to the chief people officer or HR director, 44 per cent of executives surveyed believed this individual has a critical role to play in managing disruption. However, there is a confidence gap with less than a third of respondents believing that current incumbents can successfully deliver this agenda. 

While these results may raise questions, the message is consistent across the executive leadership team: something new is required. 

To date the HR director profile has often majored on characteristics such as digital acumen, the ability to operationalise change and analytical skills. Our findings now suggest this profile needs to shift as these skills and characteristics are no longer enough to provide the leadership required. 

The HRD plays a critical role in developing, cultivating and retaining the leaders of the future. The attributes identified as most critical to deliver this are: drive and determination, courage, strategic and contextual thinking, resilience and curiosity. 

Given the critical role which chief talent officers play, they too must consider the implications for emerging leaders. To gauge their perspective, we recently polled the talent community. We discovered that 85 per cent believe that future leaders will be significantly different from those of today, whereas two-thirds said that despite rapid change and an evolving workplace, their organisations lack a strong pipeline of future leaders. 

The biggest area of weakness (cited by 78 per cent) was in people management skills. It is encouraging that, of this UK cohort, around 60 per cent said that their organisations are embracing change and thinking differently about their future leaders – above all, looking for people with stronger people management skills and more of a change mindset. Being more collaborative, global and resilient were also cited as critical. Also, as organisations face a shortage of qualified leaders to manage today’s disruptive forces, senior leaders must bring an authentic sense of purpose and vision.

The contribution of the HRD is integral to the success of the senior leadership team and the organisation. They are uniquely positioned to shape culture, mindset, values, organisational structures, talent and recognition, thereby driving the CEO and the leadership team to deliver and succeed.

Áine Hurley is head of people performance and culture practice at Odgers Berndtson