Our recent Future Talent Leaders’ Club event explored how to think like a strategist and how leaders must respond to ‘the new normal’ of business.
Held at Oxford University's Saïd Business School, February's Future Talent Leaders' Club event brought together 40 CHROs, group HR directors and chief people officers to examine the skills required for the 21st-century boardroom, through the lenses of strategy and leadership.
Alison McQuater, Saïd associate fellow and programme director for the Oxford High Performance Leadership Programme, opened the day by highlighting the need for HR leaders to step beyond the ‘chief people officer’ role and become involved in shaping strategic direction, framing issues beyond the context of people.
In an ever-changing landscape, conflict is an increasingly prevalent dimension of organisational life with which leaders must grapple, McQuater suggested. “Strategic plans are constantly being disrupted, so against a scenario of uncertainty, people will be wedded to different opinions,” she said. “Being able to confront conflict and create a safe space for dialogue is something that HR directors are ideally placed to do.”
Delegates were guided through an immersive day of learning with faculty from the business school, punctuated by interactive group sessions, open dialogue and ideas sharing.
Creating superior performance
Thomas Powell, professor of strategy at Saïd Business School, examined the concept of strategy, which he described as “the art of creating superior performance”. Equating to “sound executive judgement”, this first involves “understanding strategy problems and acknowledging that there is no perfect solution”.
He went on to outline various approaches to strategy and how these might influence decision making in different scenarios and contexts.
For example, rather than seeking a ‘perfect solution’ to a problem, leaders should look for alignment, he advised. “Often the ‘ideal strategy’ is something the company cannot execute”; this means choosing “the strategy that aligns with values of your leadership, the capabilities your business has and what you can actually execute,” he explained. “Knowing the strategy story of your own organisation, and being able to communicate it clearly and simply, is hugely powerful in the modern era.”
For Sue Dopson, Rhodes Trust professor of organisational behaviour at Saïd Business School, modern leadership is evaluated according to an ability to encourage people to work together and across boundaries, rather than to provide solutions to problems. She has observed a shift from individual leadership to shared and distributed leadership.
“A key skill for leaders is now around knowing what questions to ask and understanding the problem before you act,” she said. “Often leaders don’t spend enough time thinking about the problem and make decisions about how to respond with little information.”
She went on to introduce the notion of “adaptive leadership”, which she likened to “finding your place on the balcony while also being able to step onto the dance floor”. Part of this, she argued, is a person’s ability to orchestrate conflict – in a way that encourages collaboration and ideas.
In Dopson’s view, today’s leaders have accountability without control; they do less direct influencing but spend more time ‘nudging the context’. “Like farmers who create conditions for crops to grow, leaders create the conditions for energy to exist and great things to happen in the organisation,” she concluded.
Participants were encouraged to share their own experiences and to reflect on the links between leadership and strategy in the context of the 21st century workplace and boardroom, through peer-to-peer conversation and collaborative dialogue.
- The next Future Talent Leaders’ Club event in partnership with Saïd Business School takes place in Oxford on Monday 1 June 2020. To find out more and to register for the event, email firstname.lastname@example.org.