View from Deauville: leadership for the 21st century

In a business environment where competition, employees and teams are becoming more global, and stakeholder groups are more diverse, what are the characteristics of an effective business leader in the 21st century? And where do women fit into this picture?

An interesting discussion around this question took place today at the Women’s Forum for the Economy and Society in Deauville. In alignment with the conference’s theme of “What if? Challenge, imagination, commitment”, the Diversity for Business Club – an initiative created by the Women’s Forum and the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) – explored how leadership requirements have evolved. Who is now best equipped to be at the helm of an organisation steering a course through both anticipated and unforeseen challenges?

Female executives from a range of multinational companies along with Antony Jenkins, chief executive of Barclays Global Retail Banking, as well as BCG, today discussed the importance of organisations taking an adaptive approach in order to sustain performance and, in turn, how adaptability necessitates a new leadership model.

The model presented identified the differentiating characteristics of those leaders who will thrive in a 21st-century world: navigate - embrace global uncertainty and chart a clear course; empathise – achieve influence and authority through network; self-correct – unlearn outmoded success models; and win and win - deliver sustainable success to company and stakeholders.

Individuals participating in the discussion were unanimous on one thing. The new adaptive leadership model seems well aligned to some of the skills that women typically posses – the ability to influence multiple stakeholders, be they employees, investors, suppliers or regulatory bodies, is one example.

One participant asked:

“There are so many very different stakeholders in today’s business environment, how can one leader achieve real engagement across these diverse groups?”

The solution? First, build a leadership team around you so the task is shared. In turn the leader should navigate a clear course for the rest of the team to follow. Second, listen and empathise. Start to look at the world through the stakeholders’ eyes and connect their purpose to your business objectives.

There is a lot of training available for leaders on how to make people listen, be it presentations or pitches, but real communication is about dedicating a large proportion of time to listening to others. It is only through listening and engaging that a genuine connection occurs between two people who each have their own objectives.

One thing is clear – companies will have to profoundly reshape the way they manage their talent and develop their leaders. This leads to two questions. First, in an environment in which predictability is scarce how can an organisation develop longer-term thinking? Second, what institutional programs are needed to prepare future leadership teams inclusive of, and led by, women? There will no doubt be more interesting ideas to come out of Deauville this week.

Roselinde Torres and Jean-Michel Caye are senior partners at the Boston Consulting Group

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