In times of disruption, leaders need to shine; the adages of 'lead by example' and 'tone from the top' become even more important for making sense out of rapid change and adapting to unprecedented situations. But leaders don't emerge full-fledged from the hopes of a team. They need to be trained, prepared, and developed like every other talent.
The question of how to achieve this was the topic of the latest roundtable hosted by People Matters and CoachHub, where 20 senior HR and L&D leaders convened in Kuala Lumpur earlier in May to share experiences, perspectives, and ideas for moving forward.
“True disruption is subtle changes in the expectations of younger generations,” remarked Nadiah Tan Abdullah, CHRO of S P Setia Group, who moderated the conversation: for example, she pointed out, conversations with today’s younger candidates cover areas such as work arrangements, lifestyle, or wellbeing that would not have been discussed just 10 years ago.
So, what strategies work against this backdrop? Here are three key takeaways.
1. Democratise development: involve the younger leaders
The best leaders are products of optimal exposure, said roundtable participants. Many of them, as they themselves, pointed out, were able to attain their current positions partly because earlier in their careers, they had been given the opportunity to attend gatherings of senior leaders and gain exposure to the high level discussions and interactions there.
What this means for leadership development is simply that, instead of only extending development opportunities to senior leaders or selected successors, HR professionals need to also extend coaching and learning to leaders at all levels. Younger leaders and managers need to be prepared from early on in their leadership careers, even if they have not been officially placed in the succession pipeline.
On top of this, leaders themselves, at all levels, need to be coaches as well as project managers, and they need the HR function’s support to achieve this. Roundtable participants pointed out that because many employees often are not aware of what they themselves want or need to learn, HR’s role is to build a skills architecture to help people identify what they need to work on, where they are currently, and what gaps exist; and then leaders and managers need to support that development. In turn, this requires the leaders themselves to already have had some exposure to coaching, in order to train their teams effectively.
2. Develop talent in a flexible manner
Several leaders at the roundtable shared how, in times of disruption, a company’s operating structure has to change at high speed and the reporting structure has to shift accordingly. In a fireside chat conducted by Jimmy Li, CoachHub leader for SEA, India and ANZ, Hendri Widiarta, SVP of Human Resources in APAC for medical technology leader B. Braun, described how his company’s HR structures and processes were completely unprepared for the pandemic. A great many short-term strategies had to be very rapidly switched out and long-term strategies fast-tracked instead, from digitisation to talent development.
When something like this happens, leaders need to be very agile and move at high speed; and training and development strategies have to keep up, with the ability to coach leaders in a very rapid and flexible manner taking priority over the typical formal training that would otherwise be used.
“There is no one particular training that can solve all the problems,” Widiarta said of such situations. “What worked for us is being able to send leaders for one-on-one coaching sessions, with a person who is not your boss but is vested in you.”
Such an approach can also help to profile leaders’ strengths and weak points, so that their responsibilities can be matched to their capabilities rather than their existing job functions. Roundtable participants shared examples of placing people in charge of digital transformation based on their IT expertise rather than their formal classification within the organisation, with the objective being to make the best use of the talent available.
3. Pull training, don’t just push it
It’s one thing to push training on leaders and managers; there must also be a pull factor involved, said leaders at the roundtable.
“Leaders must have the willingness to learn in their profile,” said Widiarta. “It is one thing to talk about doing and learning, but those who actually go out and learn and then put it into practice are the really valuable ones.”
This gives rise to a lot of challenges, however; roundtable participants raised the issue of leaders who are unable to move laterally because they have become too entrenched, and need a structure created to support them across the business. Some pointed out that although a difficult issue to tackle, many organisations will benefit from leaders who can still grow, even if they are less experienced, than from leaders who have been with the organisation for a long time and have begun to stagnate.
Ultimately, the willingness to learn is key, participants agreed, because the significance of leadership development - whether brought about by coaching, exposure, or a combination of methods - is the behavioural changes that result. It is these changes that trickle down into work culture, working conditions, and other factors that can help an organisation retain its workforce even against much larger competitors.