What will a world class leader of the future be?


What will our leaders need to look like in ten years’ time? This is an important issue because when we recruit executives and managers, we are thinking about their potential for the future.

We are carrying out research with our clients to gather their views for a paper on this – with a particular focus on manufacturing and industrial sectors – and would welcome wider views if you want to contact us.

As I write, we are this week surrounded by the spectacular failure of one of the UK’s largest businesses, Carillion, and it got me thinking – what type of leader would have averted this crisis and how can we identify those that can cope with major challenges and steer the company through?

I don’t want to dwell on Carillion, but it is a good exercise to focus the mind on what leadership skills are timeless – which I looked at in an earlier blog What makes a World Class Leader? – and what new skills will be needed from leaders in the future.

Here I share my thoughts on what we regard as the critical leadership competencies and hope it will open up a discussion – I would love to hear your views.

1. Embraces and enhances technological capability

I think one of the biggest challenges for current leaders in the manufacturing and industrial sector (and actually, most sectors) is that very few really embrace technology – and by that I particularly mean digital innovation rather than product innovation.

I heard a story from the oil and gas sector recently. A company, which has revolutionised subsea technology and is saving millions of pounds through reduced vessel time, said how slow the industry is in accepting change. This is partly down to understandable concerns around health and safety, but the far bigger problem is that engineers too often are traditional in nature.  They like the well-trodden and tested route and few have really put themselves forward to learn about big data, social media, Google analytics, robotics, artificial intelligence and more.

These activities tend to be delegated by executives – to marketing teams, IT teams, consultants and more. Very few executives feel they need to understand these areas in the way of, say, finances. Which means they are delegating their decision-making.

I recently met a business leader, who after 40 years of leading and directing successful companies, is currently taking an online Harvard course on cyber security – because he knows this is a business critical area and he has to ‘own’ the thinking and management of this area.

These technologically competent leaders are the ones who will stand out in the next decade. They will no longer dismiss social media as for the youngsters or shy away from artificial intelligence, but will be steeped in understanding tech and its business impact and play an active part in decisions in these areas. Just as they do on the finances.

2. Identifies, develops and retains top talent

The ability to identify, develop and retain top talent is one of those timeless leadership skills. But what will be different about the next decade is that leaders will have to make a far bigger leap in terms of finding and recognising ‘talent’.

Let’s look at examples.

The obvious one has to be in recruiting and retaining female talent. The word ‘diversity’ is over-used, but hard evidence is now emerging that the best performing companies are the most diverse – it is not a matter of ‘nice to have’ or corporate social responsibility but hard-nosed business.  It makes sense when you think about it – the wider the mix of people in your company, the less group think you have and the more likely you are to understand your customers and spot new opportunities.

Source:  McKinsey2015: Gender diversity – a corporate performance driver

Leaders of the future will have to challenge traditional views of what ‘talent’ looks like. It won’t (necessarily) look like it does now. You will need to find it in new places and also challenge traditional ways of working to retain a more diverse workforce.  Plenty has been written about recruiting and motivating millennials (do read this article – it’s very good in challenging perceptions about millennials) – but the truth is, the world of work is changing in every way and every generation is wanting something different from work. Many want to keep working beyond 65 – what is the impact on the rest of the workforce?  Young men expect to take part in their children’s lives more than their fathers did – and there is a high chance that his partner will also continue working. What is the impact on men and women at work?

3.     Creates an environment that embraces change

Richard Hays, deputy chief economist at the Office for National Statistics admitted this week that they had got critical statistics wrong over the last few years which could have a significant impact on calcuations for rates of inflation – which in turn affect everything from benefits to rail fares (click on the link if you want to listen – go to 2:47).

What he admitted was that telecoms data usage had increased by 900% between 2010 and 2015 – and that people are now getting massively more data for lower prices. They had looked at the cost of mobile phone packages, not what people were getting for the package and there has, in effect, been a huge price drop in telecoms that hasn’t been allowed for.  In the BBC interview he admitted they had not kept pace ‘with an incredibly fast moving market’.

This is a really good example of how organisations need to create cultures that stay alert to and adapt quickly to ‘incredibly fast moving markets’. The speed of change will keep getting faster. And this has implications for culture – where employees relish change and adapt – to investment decisions and strategic plans.

4.     Identifies commercial opportunity

A key role of leaders is to develop and implement strategy. This role will not change, but the ability to do this well is going to be even harder in terms of economic, market, product and cultural assessments.

Mobile phones became popular around 1996.  In just 20 years they have become an essential part of life for most of the world; the market for apps range from keeping fit to satnav to monitoring the food in your fridge; the mobile payment M-Pesa opened up the Kenyan economy and we can chat to people across the globe through ‘free’ Facetime.

All of these businesses required leaders to spot opportunities, take risks, persuade investors and deliver on the promise.

What is the next mobile phone revolution – that is what leaders of the future need to anticipate and exploit.

5.     Is a chameleon

The days when 95% of a manufacturing company’s workforce grew up in their local area are fast disappearing.

Global, diverse workforces and business operations mean leaders need a style that transcends geography, sector and job type.

In a recent study on one of the world’s highest profile leaders, Donald Trump, his leadership style was assessed and can be reflected upon.

Whatever your views on the accuracy of this style or success/failure in his role as US President, Donald Trump was an incredibly successful businessman. The ability to translate that success into a new environment, role or cultural situation should be regarded as a leadership attribute.

Leaders need to be a chameleon and adapt style constantly and this is a quality that is difficult to define and assess.

So those are my views of the future. I have to say this was a harder exercise than I expected – there are so many things you can include but I wanted to focus on what will be the big deals when we are recruiting in ten years’ time.

To sum up, the traditional leadership traits and skills will still be needed – strategy and vision, the ability to motivate people, great communication skills.  But I believe the new ingredients we will increasingly be looking for are the ability to embrace technology and a passion to keep learning, a real passion and skill in attracting and retaining a much more diverse workforce and skills in managing more complex organisations in every aspect.

How many of these do you agree with and have I missed anything critical?  Please share your thoughts in the comment box below or email us and I would love to continue this discussion.


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3 Comments. Leave new

  • The other day, my fiance told me about his interest in learning more about interim operations leadership. He thinks that this might be a good idea for him. I think on top of this he should know that creating an environment that embraces change will greatly help them.

    • Hi Alexandria
      Interim management in operations is proving to be a more common career for many executives. No longer is it something to be considered at the latter stages of an individual’s career but rather a progressive career option usually, as you say, utilising a skill that many individuals have in influencing positive changes in diverse environments. Please feel free to speak to Paul Fleming within TS Grale’s executive business should you require further insight.

  • […] World class leaders know how to identify, develop and retain top talent. And as businesses globally are trying to gain that competitive edge, leaders are increasingly looking towards female talent to fill the void; according to PWC, the number of CEOs focussed on diversity and inclusion rose from 64% in 2015 to 87% in 2017 to drive innovation and creativity. Ensure your leaders are on the same page when it comes to finding female talent to nurture to develop future female leaders. […]


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