The concept and nature of leadership has probably never been more debated than it is now. Last year saw Theresa May take over as PM in the UK after David Cameron stepped down, while the US elected a new President - where his opponent criticised him for having no prior political experience.
The debate around leadership looks set to continue. Trump’s inauguration dominates headlines, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister has resigned, meaning an assembly election is inevitable, and the French Presidential elections are set for May.
These political upheavals have repercussions across the world of business. Redrawing the next 12 months and beyond will present uncertain and potentially challenging times, but businesses who are themselves able to ensure they have trustworthy, capable and confident leaders in place will be able to navigate this uncertainty and even thrive.
In this context, 2017 looks set to be a tough year for business in the UK. Particularly as article 50 edges ever closer. While continued uncertainty over the full impact of Brexit is enough to make some want to bury their heads in the sand, the new year provides an opportunity for the HR function to make sure their organisation is fully equipped to tackle this disruptive and uncertain future head on. Have we got the business leaders we need to steer us through all this?
28% of UK workers feel they don’t have a trustworthy and inspirational leader
Not according to our recent leadership manifesto, based on insights from 500 employers and 2,000 employees across the UK. It seems workers are crying out for a step-change in their organisation’s leadership; 28% of UK workers feel they don’t have a trustworthy and inspirational leader and nearly one in four (24%) say that leaders in their organisations make them feel stressed. Over half of employees (53%) told us they would consider moving jobs unless things change, pointing towards a considerable frustration with current leadership and business structures.
And it’s not just employees who are concerned about this issue. When it comes to looking ahead, just 31% of HR professionals feel very confident about the supply of leadership talent for the next three to five years. Clearly, these are critical problems that need to be fixed.
Tackling the leadership lag
HR professionals are vital in helping businesses grow and develop, linking business owners and leaders with their workforce at every level. They have the power to ensure that employees are equipped with the skills they need to succeed as well as making sure the workplace environment is one which helps get the very best from those who work there.
But where to start? We have pinpointed five key areas in our manifesto which will help tackle this leadership ‘lag’ and create solid leadership for the years ahead.
1. Start by getting the business to recognise that leadership skills create competitive advantage
Skilled leaders are the driving force of successful businesses. They set and communicate the vision, motivate people and determine the tone for the culture. The difference they make can’t be underestimated.
This sounds obvious to those in HR, but leaders are often overlooked in terms of training and development. Make the case for investment in leadership and communicate this to the business.
2. Think further ahead (even if you can’t predict exactly what’s going to happen)
Quick-fix approaches to leadership development – providing training only to management once there’s an obvious problem – don’t work. By that time it’s too late. This does little to help an organisation’s ability to deal with change and uncertainty.
Alongside the early provision of training, it’s important to identify future leaders and give them the tools and confidence they need much sooner in their careers. The introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy offers organisations a route to proactively identify and develop future leaders and equip them to deal with, and capitalise on, change.
3. Adapt to a changing world
Brexit is happening, whether we agree with the vote outcome or not. It will of course mean changes for many businesses and industries.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to invest in trusted and resilient leadership at all levels. Skills like strong communication, team work and problem solving capabilities will be increasingly important.
Businesses need to review the skills being fostered by their leaders to ensure priorities are focussed in the right place
Positively coping with uncertainty and rapid change is going to be a critical trait for leaders in 2017. Businesses need to review the skills being fostered by their leaders to ensure priorities are focussed in the right place for the years ahead.
4. Make leadership an issue for everyone
‘Leadership’ doesn’t just refer to people at the top – and we need to stop thinking of it in this way. Today, every employee is a leader. Rather than being a necessary step in career progression, leadership skills should be learnt from an employee’s first day at work and honed until their last.
Everyone needs to be able to communicate, to innovate, to plan, and to work effectively with other people. Leadership skills run throughout modern business, so they need to be developed at every level. As a result, the workforce is empowered to contribute to its success.
Furthermore this future-proofs the business by creating a pipeline of skilled and loyal leaders. Long gone are the days when leadership was just about the boardroom.
5. Get flexible in the workplace
Great leaders go hand in hand with great workplaces, where everyone can thrive and work successfully.
But it seems employers are falling behind the expectations of their employees in this area. Rigid structures, siloed working and overly complex hierarchies are deeply unpopular amongst today’s workers; ILM’s research shows that more than half of employees feel that the structure (55%) and culture (53%) of their business is holding them back from doing their job more effectively and many want more freedom and flexibility.
Flattening organisational structures and creating environments people really want to work and collaborate in is helpful in terms of boosting engagement and improving productivity. But more than this, it may prove to be critical for coping with changes ahead thatare driven by a changing world.
To read the ILM manifesto in full, visit www.i-l-m.com/manifesto
John is the Group Director of ILM, the UK’s leading provider of leadership and management qualifications.
ILM is dedicated to continuously improving leadership, management and coaching skills – both in the UK and internationally – ensuring businesses and individuals are equipped for the working world now and in the future.