Developing leaders for the 21st century

Written by
Steve Krupp, partner and Sharon Sands, partner
Heidrick & Struggles

05 Oct 2018

05 Oct 2018 • by Steve Krupp, partner and Sharon Sands, partner

How can companies develop leaders capable of accelerating performance – that is, able to build and change momentum to get results more quickly — in today’s fast-changing environment?

With capital effectively priced at zero, value creation resides in leadership’s ability to harness and implement ideas better and faster than competitors. Our study of this process, based on decades of work and years of research,  finds that the single biggest force behind acceleration is the quality of leadership.

We identified four factors that correlate with superior business results and growth that outpaces the competition. Individual leaders either drive accelerated performance or create drag effects through how they mobilise, execute, and transform, and whether they do so with agility. These four qualities comprise what we call the META framework (see figure).

Mobilising requires leaders to inspire aligned action based on a compelling purpose and a simple set of strategic priorities. Dragging organisations may be overtaken by market disruptions and experience chronic service failures and high customer attrition because they have fallen out of step with customers’ changing tastes.
To turn drag into drive, leaders must create processes to put the customer at the centre of all strategic decision making and energise the organisation behind a customer-driven mission so powerful that everyone wants to make the vision a reality. A customer-first story must be easy to understand, told at every opportunity, and powerful enough to speed up decision making.
Mobilisation has three drive factors:
  • Put customers first — understand and shape customer needs, create distinctive value, and build deep customer relationships
  • Shape strategy — anticipate and interpret market changes, envision the future, and decide strategic priorities
  • Inspire and influence — co-create meaning and purpose, engage and energise the organisation, and lead through influence
Execution is about harnessing and streamlining resources to consistently deliver excellence in the core business. Great executors focus relentlessly on strengths and stop initiatives that are not strategic or distinct.
Execution drags when employees and resources are stuck in complex, hierarchical structures; there is little diversity of thought among decision makers; and talent development is poor. Leaders can turn that drag into drive by simplifying the organisation, setting fewer priorities, and focusing the team on the most critical results.
They reduce bureaucracy and push for a culture of meritocracy that holds people accountable for their performance. Such growth-oriented leaders are talent magnets who challenge those around them to accelerate performance.
Execution has two drive factors:
  • Build talent and teams — develop leaders, build teams, and strengthen organisational capability
  • Drive for result — drive execution, continuously improve the core and reallocate resources
To transform, leaders experiment and innovate to create corporate growth engines and reinvent existing businesses. Sometimes transformation results from a steady, long-term effort; other times it’s the result of a dramatic breakthrough.
More than the other areas of META, transformation implies a change in the way leaders think about and reallocate resources. Transformative leaders break with tradition and eliminate internal fiefdoms, reexamine how things are done, and embrace disruptive innovation.
Transformation has two drive factors:
  • Disrupt and challenge — create possibilities from new thinking, generate disruptive change, and lead change
  • Lead innovation — experiment, collaborate across boundaries, and scale and invest in new ideas
The most differentiating element of acceleration – agility – implies the ability to spot opportunities and threats and to adapt and pivot faster than peers. Agility also means preparing for, withstanding, and recovering quickly from setbacks.
A dragging leader is slow to adapt to market changes, has “analysis paralysis”, and applies old solutions to new problems. To improve adaptability, leaders must decode the weak signals indicating that change is coming, nimbly adjust, and act quickly at the right time.
Agility comprises four drive factors:
  • Foresight — solve complex problems, develop ideas, and think expansively
  • Learning — develop self-awareness and be curious, open-minded, and courageous
  • Adaptability — be authentic, show empathy, and flex and transform
  • Resilience — adopt an ownership mindset and have purpose, integrity, persistence, and sustaining energy
Companies can create value by using the META framework to assess current leaders and identify potential leaders—and then accelerating their development into high-quality, effective leaders. 

Heidrick & Struggles