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Wavelength’s Jessica Stack FRSA speaks at InnovateHR Conference on Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders

Jun 25th 2024

Wavelength’s Jess Stack at InnovateHR Conference on Developing Leaders for Tomorrow

Jessica Stack FRSA, Co-founder of Wavelength, spoke at the InnovateHR Conference this month. It was our great pleasure to be a Platinum Partner at the event.

During her session on Developing Leaders for the Future, hosted by David Lanigan, Partner, HRD Online, and with fellow presenter Gerard Penning, Non-Executive Director Alliander NV & Sustainable Energy for All, Jessica shared her insights on what she and Wavelength are seeing in leaders across the globe and what skills she believes leaders and leadership development should focus on for the future.

Trends we're seeing across leaders globally

Wavelength is in quite a unique position because we work globally across sectors, from large corporate companies and private sector organisations, and with charities, third, and public sector organisations.

We all know we are operating in a VUCA {Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous} world and what we see is that leaders are expected to understand and have a point of view on a wide range of complex issues.

From geopolitics and challenges to supply chains, environmental impact to radical new technologies. And then, how do you lead for a great place to work culture, an inclusive culture, and support your own and others’ mental health? It’s a huge melting pot of issues and challenges.

One of the results of this is a state of exhaustion in leaders. And it’s not surprising. The Collins Dictionary word of the year in 2022 was ‘permacrisis’, and that state of uncertainty has continued ever since: Covid-19, global instability, and this year, millions of people across the globe are going to the polls. In the UK, businesses have also felt the fallout from Brexit.

What we see at Wavelength is that very few leaders have led through a crisis at this scale and at a global level before, so the relentless state of uncertainty and change has eroded personal energy and exacerbated a sense of insularity.

The leadership skills that we will see in the future

So, with that context, what are the leadership skills that we will see in the future?

There are many to explore, but I’m going to focus in on three.

 

 

 

 

 

ONE
The first is energy. One of the things that we really look at is managing your energy and your time efficiency – really understanding what gives you energy and what drains it. As one of the leaders in Wavelength’s network, Geoff McDonald, former Global VP of HR at Unilever, says, “the single most valuable resource that your company has is energy”. A key piece of the work that he did with The Energy Project whilst at Unilever was to identify how we can rebuild our energy every day. The research revealed that we need to focus on three areas: our body and physical health; our mind and mental health; and our spirit – the energy of meaning and purpose in the work that we do and in our life.The Energy Project encourages leaders to think daily about how they manage their energy, not their time. We’re all guilty of it. We all focus on managing our diaries, managing how we shoehorn yet more into our days and our weeks. But what the research identifies is the importance of flipping that to create space to build energy first and manage time (and diary) second.

 

TWO
The second leadership skill that we think is important is purposefully building your network. I was reading HBR’s recent research with Chief Executives, and close to 50% of those interviewed said the role they took on was “not what I expected beforehand.” The research suggested several best practices to consider, one of which is establishing a clear framework for ‘managing relationships up and out’. As a CEO or senior leader, what HBR’s research identifies is that successful leaders dedicate significant time to building and maintaining one-on-one relationships within the board, and with investors and external stakeholders.One of the key outputs of that is it builds support for longer term outlooks. We are often asked here at Wavelength, how do you drive significant change and have long-term strategies. We see, and the HBR research reinforces, that leaders have to build strong lines of communication, trust, and patience with investors and external stakeholders, to enable them to drive through step-change strategies and transformation.

 

THREE
Third is, the value of coaching and mentoring. There are two parts to this. First, the majority of senior leaders that we meet when we go inside organisations or when we are running our events, talk about having a coach or mentor alongside them. They see a coach as an absolute cornerstone of their ability to drive change – having that one-to-one support and sounding board.Then the second part relates to a great study by Google’s Project Oxygen from 2011 but still incredibly valuable. Google revealed in their research that of the Eight Characteristics of Successful Leaders, being an effective coach is at number 1! It’s usually seen as a soft skill, but here at Wavelength, we hear time and time again about how effective leaders facilitate their entire team’s success by bringing out the best in individuals and by building a strong collective team.A great example of this is from one of my favourite speakers, Baroness Sue Campbell, Director of Women’s Football at the FA and the former Chair of UK Sport. She talks about how, early in her leadership journey, she learnt to step back from micro-managing and telling people what to do, and instead found the power in asking three really great questions designed to unlock potential, and to empower people to do their best work. Her questions are, 1) what do you do? 2) What could you do? 3) And what’s stopping you? And just by starting at that point, empowering people to answer those honestly and openly, it gets to the why. Why are you doing what you’re doing? What could you do with the freedom to deliver in your way? Rather than just telling people what to do.

Bringing the outside in for leaders

Bringing the outside in – so what is it, what does it mean and why is it essential for leaders?

Well, it’s the opportunity to look outside of your sector, outside of your organisation, outside of your role, and to keep current. It is one of the ways to shift from fear of the unknown into keeping curious. It’s about bringing fresh perspectives and a dose of inspiration, enabling leaders to spot and explore opportunities as well as challenges.

Bringing the outside in absolutely sits at the heart of what Wavelength does. We know from our work just how insular leaders are feeling and how they’re expected to have an informed point of view about so many issues. Indeed, one question we’re often asked is, how do you see what’s happening in terms of disruption and change coming down the track? What we typically see is leaders and organisations benchmarking and looking at others in the same sector for the answer. And whilst that’s clearly useful, it’s not going to provide a ‘stretch’ understanding of what’s happening.

If we look at innovation and new technologies as an example: in the West, we’re very focused on autonomous vehicles; who will be the first to get autonomous vehicles on the road at scale. But if we look to China, in November 2023, EHang got the first licence to operate fully autonomous, passenger carrying, flying cars!

Or look to Silicon Valley and the launch in February 2024 of Sora. There had been a lot in the media about the strike by scriptwriters and actors in Hollywood because of the impact of AI on their industry. Meanwhile, Sora quietly became the first text-to-video platform powered by AI. The detail is extraordinary but not just the artistic creation of the video, but also the AI’s ability to understand and produce video content from instructions such as, “extreme close up” or “shot on 35mm film” versus “shot on a mobile phone”.

We, as leaders, really need to know about what is happening in all corners of the world and the disruption that’s coming down the track. In that new knowledge, leaders can begin to anticipate and navigate disruption in their own sector.

Asking for help

Finally, I think there can be a stigma about asking for help. Very often we see that people who have got to very senior leadership positions have done so by building the technical skills needed to climb. But what about the leadership skills needed as they reach the top of the organisation. Quite often what we see is leaders with a sense of fear, a sense of ‘I have to heighten my persona to hide imposter syndrome, loneliness, fear’. So, whether it be the HR Director, executive coach, mentor, or another trusted member within their senior team, having someone who’s able to be alongside that leader is really important.

One of the structures we at Wavelength love is a framework called the Personal Boardroom. This challenges you to strategically build that team around you, people who can play different roles in your network: people who challenge you; people that are the nerve givers, the supporters; people who bring the customer voice. It’s a wide-ranging tool comprising a suite of roles that can be played in support of you and also by you for others – your boardroom team, but personal.

In Summary

In her TedTalk, What it takes to be a great leader, Rosalind Torres asks where are you looking to anticipate change.

Who are you spending time with both inside and outside of work, what are you reading, what are you watching, where are you travelling, how diverse is your network, and how expansive is your experience day to day.

And then what space are you leaving in your diary to reflect on and distil what you are seeing that can enable you to see around the corner – to be pro-active instead of reactive.

At Wavelength we believe you can’t outsource change and we know that leading change is really hard! But building knowledge, insights, energy and passion, alongside a great network to lean on, gives leaders to the tools, stories and examples of what’s possible to help them drive transformation and change.

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