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What makes a good leader?

As the business world becomes more complex and competitive, aspiring 
leaders will have to go the extra mile

  • Today’s business environment is all about change, which is a trend that a young executive must follow closely Image Credit: Corbis
  • A leader needs to create and clearly communicate the big picture; this is especially true of virtual or distriImage Credit: Corbis
GN Focus

If advances in the corporate world are any indication, business education will soon have to dramatically reinvent itself to meet new developments that go much beyond the traditional Master of Business Administration degree. A senior executive will increasingly face complex challenges that involve organisational changes, market dynamics and talent shortages. Companies will create pools of candidates with high leadership potential and give them the space to reach their goals — and only those who understand the trends in business and develop the associated skills to manage them can succeed.

Today’s business environment is all about change, which forms the first trend that a young executive must follow closely if he is to climb the corporate ladder. And a leader’s ability to manage change while meeting goals could make or break him.

Aspiring leaders need to learn to identify challenges that accompany the process of strategic change, to foster an innovative environment, to engage people in the change process and to bridge the talent gap.

“Things to determine are: are leaders choosing the right approach and style to change, are they aware of the constraints and do they know how to select the right staff to implement change,” Kathrin Bishop, Associate Fellow at Said Business School, University of Oxford and UK Civil Service Commissioner, told GN Focus at a seminar on leadership by the Malaysia-based Razak School of Government, an elite education body, in Kuala Lumpur on January 8 this year.

Bishop explained that there are two types of leadership styles, the administrative/programmatic style, focusing on setting and executing tasks, giving instructions, motivating, measuring and monitoring. The other style is the adaptive/transformational style, which emphasises on setting a context, describing the view and managing conflict, setting a ‘balcony view’ on a company’s development.

“It depends strongly on the organisation which leadership styles are the most appropriate”, she said. “But the adaptive style is sometimes the only way to achieve change”.

The combination of changes in market dynamics and a shortage of available talent creates an environment where organisations will continually be asked to do even more with less and respond even faster to changes in their industry and economy — which means a business leader will have to be prepared for change management at all levels.

Innovative solutions

The next trend is the management of innovation, which includes smart technology and social media. Mobility and connectedness will be at the heart of the future business environment: communications and marketing are moving from a focus on one-to-one relationships to many-to-many. Future leaders will have to understand that and use social media to ensure that innovation becomes an organisation-wide competency. Companies such as Google or Apple wouldn’t be at the forefront of their respective businesses if they had not integrated innovation in their entire business model, along with innovative management — where any employee can pitch new ideas and even criticise existing management structures, and where leaders stay in touch with the ranks of employees no matter how large the number.

Ku Kok Peng, a senior official at the Malaysian government’s Performance Management and Delivery Unit, tells GN Focus that innovation in an organisation has to consider behaviour and patterns people are accustomed to. Therefore, innovational change happens in a cycle of orientation — dissatisfaction, resolution, and production — for staff which also means the fear of failure has to be conquered by the management.

“For the leader, it is about making the impossible happen,” Peng says, “and making people accountable and have them take ownership.”

Virtual leadership

Another trend is virtual leadership. As globalisation increases, organisations are continually asked to bridge cultural, geographical and functional boundaries effectively and efficiently, and this includes the use of modern communication techniques such as virtual meetings, conferences and so-called webinars. In fact, virtual leadership requires different skills from face-to-face leadership. The questions are: what can be done to train leaders for a virtual world, and what skills will they need to be effective in the future?

Companies that perpetuate the myth that virtual teaming is business as usual, just on a distributed scale, often encounter serious challenges in team communication and conflict resolution. On the other hand, companies conscious of developing a high quality of trusting relationships are better prepared to successfully develop common purposes, operating principles, goals, roles, expectations and milestones. It is the human interpersonal relationship ingredient, often called emotional intelligence, which unites highly qualified people in different locations.

A leader needs to create and communicate the big picture. This is especially true of virtual or distributed teams, where it is not always easy to experience interdependencies among the members. A leader must also be able to implement best practices, re-engineer the work processes, be a role model and be skilled at leading in a cross-cultural environment. From the technical perspective, a leader needs to establish clear communication channels for virtual teams, including effective email protocols and an internal social media platform within the company.

Virtual leadership is closely connected to the new mobility in the business world. One in two workers in future operations will be contingent and talent will be deployed and redeployed from around the world as internal and external labour becomes more mobile. Teams will form to tackle projects, after which they will disband. Work will be done anywhere, anytime in the world, and a future leader needs to understand this model and develop bold leadership characteristics to ensure that the business adapts and thrives.

Raising finance

A leader also needs to be competent in new methods of fundraising. Financing of businesses and projects will move away from classic bank channels as the business community faces the fact that the current financial system is ailing and exposed to major risks. Businesses may want new means of financing and consumers may want alternatives. Corporate financing of the future will change in its structure, will include methods such as crowd funding and new forms of venture financing, or will partly rely on cashless operations such as bartering, digital money or mobile banking. A future leader has to be familiar with these new methods and see where he can use them within the corporation.

“There will be skills required for future managers to understand the far-reaching changes that are rewriting the rules that govern the financial markets,” says international finance expert Guido Eilenberger, former head of the Institute for Banking Economy at the University of Rostock, Germany, and renowned author of several books on banking and finance trends. “A future manager will need to examine how mergers and acquisitions, strategic corporate communication, entrepreneurial finance, corporate social responsibility and the emergence of new investors interrelate and affect developments on the markets,” he adds.

All in all, these new challenges will require an aspiring leader capable of expanding his knowledge far beyond what classical business education teaches today — and while the path might not be easy, the results will definitely be worth it.