The Next Crisis Is Around The Corner. Here’s How To Find The Right Leaders For The Future.
In the aftermath of the economic tornado that has whipped through the world, storm clouds remain on the horizon, and major questions remain unanswered. Will there be a second wave of Covid-19? How bad will it be? Will the recovery take the shape of a U, or a W, or some other letter for that matter?
No one knows. What is clear is that we now face a level of ambiguity that is distinctly unfamiliar and for which many organizations are woefully ill-equipped.
The past few months have opened our eyes to exactly the kind of leaders we need — and in some pointed and painful cases, the leaders we lack. Now that we know the unprecedented is possible, it’s time to ask some pivotal questions: Who are the right leaders in these disconcerting times? Who is the best man (ahem, or woman) for the top job? And how can we go about finding them?
A future defined by ambiguity calls for a different kind of leader, or at a minimum, a different approach to leadership. As the adage goes, if you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got. If we don’t reconsider how we source, appoint and evaluate our leaders, we’ll miss the opportunity to bring fresh and diverse skills and perspectives to positions of influence inside organizations at a time when they are most needed.
Now is the time for every organization to ask itself the following questions:
How Are Leaders Groomed Within The Organization?
Gautam Mukunda, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School and author of Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter, has identified patterns in the careers of some of the world’s most historically successful leaders but also explores the systems that place them in positions of power to begin with. As he explains, often “the process by which leaders come to power homogenizes the pool of potential leaders.” Having a stringent internal succession planning process within a corporation practically guarantees that those who make it to the top become increasingly homogeneous along the way.
Consider your organization’s process for grooming people or appointing them to senior roles. How much does this process “filter” who makes it onto the docket for consideration? Is it so rigid that it stops people with unique personalities, eclectic backgrounds, or other “outliers” from having a shot? Does the process unknowingly allow for unconscious biases, or filters that ensure only a certain type of person can come to power? With only 1% of Fortune 500 CEOs being Black and 7.4% being women, it’s a fair question.
As Mukunda notes, “organizations try to weed out the crazies, the incompetent, or anyone who just doesn’t fit in” which means that leaders tend to be selected from slates of candidates with little variation. Therefore, to get leaders with different perspectives than those in the past, we should look at candidates whose careers have circumvented the traditional “up or out” pasteurization process of large corporations.
What Criteria Do We Use To Evaluate Candidates?
In a world where change is genuinely becoming a constant and the job involves contending with unexpected inbounds, uncertainty, volatility, and disruption, are traditional candidates with ‘typical’ experience still the right way to go? The world is crying out for greater diversity (of all kinds) in our leaders, which means that we must ensure those who don’t fit the traditional mold can make it through the filters that historically have excluded them.
This means reconsidering the selection criteria and challenging the conventional assumptions as to what occupying the top job requires. As an example, when selecting board directors, as long as the job specifications for board roles require that candidates be a sitting or current CEO and/or have prior board experience, the pool of potential candidates is reduced to the size of a puddle.
Reprioritizing the selection criteria is one way of ensuring that a broader and more diverse set of prospective candidates are considered. In these times, it makes sense to reexamine what are necessary prerequisites versus what might once have been considered as “nice to haves.” After all, soft skills matter most in hard times.
How Can We Assess Future Potential, Not Just Past Experience?
Leaders today must tackle a whole host of unforeseen issues and dynamics, so how much can their past experience really tell us? The unprecedented is, by definition, something for which no one is aptly qualified, so a candidate’s baseline capability and potential count for much more.
How do candidates approach and handle situations about which they know nothing? How have they contended with the unexpected? How have they leaned into challenges? Where have they failed, and more importantly, how did they process, what did they learn, and how did they recover from that experience?
How might interview processes reflect more thoughtfully on the questions candidates ask as opposed to the answers they give? Can we score people on the way they listened and not just how they talked? How might we assess their level of empathy or their ability to catalyze teams into action in the face of paralyzing fear?
The unknown terrain of “tomorrow” requires one capability above all other: curiosity. The leaders we select must create an ever-rising ceiling on the organization’s capacity to learn and adapt and instill curiosity and resilience into the core fabric of their company’s culture. Most selection processes don’t prioritize these types of criteria — but the future might well demand them.
We’ve reached an inflection point where the need to change is greater than the want to remain the same. The world is seeking leaders who can balance hope with reality and illuminate a path ahead; those who can reorient us away from a sense of fear and pessimism toward the realm of possibility and opportunity. Whether you believe that our leaders thus far have failed us or not, no-one can argue the counterfactual: What might have been if a broader spectrum of leaders and a more diverse representation of the population had historically held the top jobs?
Clearly, the world is ready to find out.