As the nature of work changes, new technology is introduced and social norms evolve, we need different skills from our people and leaders.
The COVID-19 pandemic abruptly accelerated this process, as we sprang into action learning to work remotely, manage business interruption and adapt to virtual environment.
The challenge for ambitious professionals is working out what to focus on, if we don't want to lose currency. What skills should we be teaching and learning?
How do we make sure we aren’t being left behind?
We don’t teach people what they really need
For decades, we’ve followed the same process at work: we teach people to be operational experts, then we give them some management training. All skill-based learning.
But it’s not working anymore. The half-life of a skill has dropped to less than five years – which means that while your typing skills may have served you for life 20 years ago, that new coding skillset will be out of date in little more time than it takes to do a degree.
Our development pathways haven’t caught up with the pace of the world, resulting in leadership teams full of experts in their field, who know how to balance a budget but are battling with the stuff people really need from them.
Study after study tells us that the strategic capacity of our leaders is the most important determinant of personal and organisational success - yet this is the stuff we aren’t teaching.
Strategy is the future of work
What we really need are strategic skills.
Instead of trying to predict the next-big technical skill or platform to master, we should think about how to build the capabilities that will keep us moving forward even when operational demands change.
When we know how to think (not what), how to respond to change and how to solve tricky problems, it doesn’t matter what problems we’re facing - because we have the skills to fix them.
Strategic leadership is all about context. Strategic leaders ask questions like: “what’s going on?” “what does that mean?” “what should we be thinking differently about?” and “what are we not seeing?”.
Strategic leaders have mastered five critical skills.
Five untaught strategic skills
Flexibility - To cope with change
Decisions- To set direction
Systems - To solve tricky problems
Performance - To make things happen
Influence - To have more impact.
To lead through complexity, we need to be OK with change. Flexible leaders know that leadership isn’t about getting things done in spite of their environment, but because of it.
They have the awareness, agency and resilience to withstand pandemics, natural disasters and technological disruption, because they stay flexible to the world around them.
Old question: How do we manage risk?
How do we prepare for inevitable disruption?
What did we learn from this?
Making good decisions is a learned skill. Decisive leaders know it’s not what they think, but how they think that matters, focusing on providing direction that drives action.
They know that no cost-benefit analysis will save them, without the skills to capture diverse input and build in tolerance for change.
Old question: What should we do?
How should we think about this?
What’s the smallest possible choice we can test?
Strategic leaders think in systems, because they know that successful organisations dismantle siloes and work out how things fit together.
Systems leaders don’t settle for what’s in front of them, focusing instead on the messy stuff – context, relationships and dependencies. They stop finger-pointing and problem-solving, to pull levers and dissolve issues before they take hold.
Old question: How do I solve this problem?
Why is this happening?
How do we change the conditions, to stop it taking hold in the first place?
True performance isn’t operational excellence or time management – it’s focus. Strategic leaders understand that their most valuable resource is their attention, optimising their environments and teams to invest in the factors that make a real difference. They know that once they eliminate distraction and insist on value, quality and accountability, there’s nowhere left to hide.
Old question: How do I be more productive to get more done?
Which activities contribute the most to our big goals?
How do we reduce or simplify other tasks?
Influential leaders know that political savvy isn’t slimy; it’s non-negotiable for impact at scale. They know that their integrity, reputation and relationships are what makes the difference. As our environment continues to shift, it will be the leaders who can bring others with them whose ideas will take hold.
Old question: How can I persuade them?
Why should they care?
What value do I add?
Lessons that count
In the knowledge economy, we’ve got access to all the technical information and instruction in the world at the touch of a button. If you need finance knowledge, watch a video and get your head around it in 15 minutes. If you need marketing expertise, Google for a freelancer and book the job in online.
But if you need to understand how best to adapt to your environment, how to make quality decisions that capture the big picture, how to drive focus and how to take people along on the journey… well, it’s time for strategic leadership. Let’s shift the dial.