As machines augment people in performing routine physical and process-based work, thanks to robotics, automation, and cognitive computing, the work people do is changing, opening the door to new opportunities for people to add value to customers, companies, and communities. In turn, what leaders expect—and what is expected of them—is changing, too. How are you developing leaders for the future of work?
Each day, our work and our lives are becoming more heavily interconnected with smart machines and robots—from smart warehouses to robotic surgery to cognitive investment advisers. The “what” (what work can machines do?), “who” (who can do the work, from our employees to gig workers to crowds), and “where” (remote, distributed, augmented reality) of work are changing. Much of the traditional organizational hierarchy is being reshaped around networks of teams to facilitate faster, more responsive, and more agile ways of working now possible with these new technologies.
These new realities have created different expectations for leaders and changed how companies should approach leadership development. Here are some ways today’s enterprises should reimagine leadership development programs as we prepare all levels of leaders to take the helm in an augmented workforce.
- New experiences for faster times: Movement through the leadership pipeline needs to accelerate.The assumption that companies have the benefit of time to develop employees over the course of a single-thread, multiyear career may no longer be true. The half-life of domain skills (for example, a computer language) continues to fall—what was once useful for 10 years is now relevant for five, or less). The average worker might currently hold 10 different jobs before age 40, and this number is projected to grow1. Millennials born in the early ’80s held approximately seven jobs between the ages of 18 and 28 compared with their Baby Boomer parents, who held 12 jobs between ages 18 and 50.2 Adding to that, today’s worker is hungry for development opportunities now. Actively identifying critical and high-potential talent early is the first step to giving them the experiences they need and want. Then, once the pipeline is active, companies should engage identified leaders with experiences early and continue providing experiences to maintain engagement.
- Meaningful experience will likely come from projects, not necessarily roles: Work in a digital world is typically no longer completed with the role or function as the unit of analysis. As technology introduces greater efficiencies into everyday processes, it also helps to break down the barriers that once made cross-functional collaboration difficult. In a recent report by Deloitte Digital and MIT Sloan, we see this playing out across digitally mature businesses, 70 percent of which are using cross-functional teams to organize work, compared to less than 30 percent for early-stage organizations3. Examining your operating model to evaluate how work is getting done across teams, rather than through traditional roles and responsibilities aligned to a hierarchy, is a critical first step. Forward-thinking companies bring leaders together from across functions for collaborative design and problem-solving exercises to form solutions to enterprise challenges. Getting leaders project-based experience and charging them with implementing digital business priorities can not only give them the experience they need to develop but can also serve as a retention strategy. Vice president-level executives without sufficient digital opportunities are 15 times more likely to want to leave within a year than are those with satisfying digital challenges4.
- Earlier, later, ongoing. Leaders need to receive exposure opportunities sooner as part of their development: Now, perhaps more than ever before, leadership development should happen in the context of everyday work rather than in the classroom. The evolution of the “what,” “who,” and “where” of work has widened the aperture through which leaders must view their organization, requiring greater exposure to the kinds of challenges they will face, rather than the “art” of leadership. Our research shows that the most valuable learning happens in actual business situations that require leaders to stretch, and in workplaces that support leadership development objectives5. This shift has implications for formal leadership development programs, which should move from standard training, coaching, and 360 feedback to external experiences and stretch projects that focus on culture, context, knowledge sharing, and risk taking.
- Personal and team reinvention is THE leadership capability. Enhance the development of expertise by teaching leaders how to learn; not just what to learn: In today’s increasingly fast-paced business environment, change is no longer the exception but the expectation. Organizations and their leaders will go through continuous evolution to keep pace with the competition. Our colleague, John Hagel of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, notes that in today’s world that demands accelerating learning, the mark of a strong leader is the person who has been trained to ask the most powerful questions. Formal leadership development programs have long focused on behavioral recipes or competency models to teach the right skills to leaders—emphasizing the individual’s capability rather than a view of the ecosystem in which s/he operates. As organizational contexts flatten and become more complex, we should instead focus our attention on teaching people the mind-set of a leader facing the pace and challenges of the current environment. For example, how do the most collaborative leaders think about teaming in the workplace? What do they pay attention to and how do they foster these principles at work?
The challenges leaders confront today are in many ways different from just five years ago, but the essential role of a leader remains the same. As Harvard Professor Ronald Heifetz posited almost 20 years ago, the “new” role of a leader is “to help people face reality and to mobilize them to make change.”6 Our emerging leaders will guide us through some of the most significant transformations we’ve seen in our lifetime. The success or failure of these individuals may rest with their ability to activate the organization to deliver value in a world where disruption lurks around every corner. Doing this successfully will require new ways of working, thinking, and leading, and it’s our job to make sure we’re designing the right experiences for leaders to succeed.
1 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Number of Jobs, Labor Market Experience, and Earnings Growth Among Americans at 50: Results from a Longitudinal Survey, August 24, 2017.
2 Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Experience of Youths: Results from a Longitudinal Survey News Release, April 8, 2016; Baby boomers born from 1957 to 1964 held an average of 11.9 jobs from ages 18 to 502, August 28, 2017.
3 Achieving Digital Maturity: Adapting Your Company to a Changing World,” MIT Sloan Management Review, July 13, 2017.
5 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends: Rewriting the rules for the digital age, Deloitte Development LLC.
6 Ronald A. Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1994.