The Future is Leaving – Keith Coates

By 2014, the percentage of companies that generate at least 30% of global revenue from emerging markets will increase by 82%.  The key to that statement is, ‘from emerging markets’. The global economic epicentre is shifting and the future looks nothing like the present. It is forecast that by 2020 China will become the world’s largest economy and that by 2050, China will in turn be surpassed by India. Of course there is a lot that can happen to change such predictions but the trajectory is clear and irrefutable. Many economists anticipate that the growth in emerging markets will be 4% higher than growth in the ‘rich world’ for at least the next five years. As this happens, when this happens – everything will shift.

The future is leavingThe reasons underpinning such a shift are both complex and hard to isolate. Urbanisation, cheap labour, loose regulatory constraints, large markets and technology all play a part. Some of the current strengths may well turn to disadvantages in the future and when you add in politics, energy and catastrophes to the mix – the future will be interesting. Our children will grow-up in a world unlike that of our own. Some see that as an opportunity and others view it as a threat.  I belong to the former grouping and have always endeavoured to encourage my own children to travel (especially to the East), become comfortable around change, turbulence and uncertainty; to question and always remain curious. Of course you will have to ask them to what extent I have succeeded!

All this has massive implications for leadership. For one thing, it will force a rethink of both the theory and practice of leadership. For those invested in current models of leadership – be that the theory or the practice, the invitation to rethink remains unappealing for obvious reasons. Dan Pink makes the point that if we want compliance, then our current management models work very well; however if it is engagement that we desire, then we will need to rethink those models. Pink is right on the money!

So how then do we do this ‘rethinking’?

At a personal level there are three things you can do as a leader to ensure you cultivate the right habits and reflexes around rethinking.

1.    Ask questions– but start with yourself. Start to challenge your own assumptions and viewpoints. Start ‘inside-out’ with such questioning but grow comfortable with being challenged ‘outside-in’. Which bridges to my second point…
2.    Invite feedback. Most leaders I know don’t get the kind of feedback they need. It comes gift-wrapped in fear, politics, niceties, agreement or endorsement. Authentic feedback is not given either because it is not invited, or because there isn’t a safe environment in which ‘real feedback’ can thrive. Good and reliable feedback is the lifeblood of continued growth and fuels adaptation. Smart leaders intentionally create an environment that allows authentic feedback and they don’t exclude themselves from the feedback loop. Many leaders think they have achieved this when in reality, they haven’t.
3.    Know your biases. We all have lenses through which we interpret the world around us. Understanding what these lenses are and how they impact on ‘how we see’ is the groundwork of emotional intelligence.  We don’t see the world as it is but rather as we are.  Furthermore, you lead out of who you are. This means that doing this ‘inner-work’ is simply not optional. As you learn to identify your own biases, it opens up the possibility of seeing differently – that in turn enables and energizes the process of rethinking.

At an organisational level there are also three things that you can do to promote and position the posture of rethinking:

1.    Revisit how you are going about your learning and development programmes (LDP). The fact that performance measures (for those responsible for the learning and development) are tied into how much the participants ‘enjoyed’ the experience means there is a focus on the wrong things.  I have been part of many a LDP where the emphasis is on keeping the participants happy rather than on real learning taking place. The hotels, the transport, the food, being comfortable, being in control, poorly thought through evaluations all become the focus rather than a fundamental understanding that real learning requires disruption, discomfort and a measure of experiential learning. Is your LDP too safe? Does it focus on the wrong things? Has it made any real difference to the mind-sets and behaviour of those who have attended the programme? Most scorecards in response read: Yes, yes and no!
2.    Recognize and reward failure. If you are not failing (in something) it means you are not innovating. Without innovation within your business, your success will be limited. Failure needs to be both contained and be something from which we extract learning – if it is to be a valuable tool for rethinking. However, all too often we don’t like to talk about failure and our organisational culture and our metrics mean that we seldom encourage new thinking and experimentation that could result in failure. This has to change; and it is easier said than done in an organisational culture where tradition dictates a blind-eye towards failure.
3.    Embrace and leverage diversity. We need to learn how to move from being ‘different from’ each other to being ‘different for’ each other. Harnessing diversity is no easy task and the mere presence of diversity, does not always translate into harnessing the benefits of that difference. The benefits of harnessing diversity are immense:  innovation, resilience, better decision-making (especially when entering emerging or foreign markets), adaptive behaviour and better team building (especially when it comes to Gen X and Gen Y) – to name but the more obvious benefits. There is an African proverb that states: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone: But if you want to go far, go together’. Incorporating and working with diversity as part of your organisational fabric will naturally promote and cultivate rethinking throughout your organisation. It will also serve to contribute significantly towards long-term sustainability.

There is a thought-provoking Levi’s advert that states: ‘The future is leaving. Go forth’ If you don’t want to get left behind by the future, you will need to be able to rethink! So what might you (and your organisation) need to, as a matter of urgency, unlearn and rethink if you are to not be left behind?

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