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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

Look to The Future now

The Future 1000x563

The School for CEOs has just published a compelling new research report, Future-proofing the CEO. We have interviewed 66 CEOs, Chairs and HR Directors to hear their views on the future of business and the ways CEOs can prepare themselves for that future. The interviewees include some of the most experienced business-men and -women in the UK, people like Dame Louise Makin (CEO of BTG), John Allan (Chairman of Tesco) and Kerry Christie (Global Head of Human Resources, Aberdeen Asset Management). Together, they give us powerful insight into the concerns and hopes of today’s business leaders.

We asked our cross-section of business leaders to focus on the long-term, the next decade, rather than immediate issues. (We carried out the research around the time of the Brexit vote). Their top strategic concern turned out not to be climate change, ‘the war for talent’ or regulation. Far and away, the top driver of change is expected to be technology (including digital). 71% of the contributors feel that tech will be one of the two biggest drivers of change over the next 10 years.

The next item on the list, globalisation, is way behind at just 35%. Not far behind that are demographic change at 32%, politics at 29% and regulation at 15%. Last on the list is natural environment (including climate change) at just 5%. I’m pretty confident that, just a few years ago, climate change and globalisation would have been much higher up the list.

It’s striking how dramatic a change business leaders expect tech to deliver. Adrian Grace, Chief Executive of Aegon UK, says that “A scenario akin to the industrial revolution is going to happen in financial services over the next 5-10 years.” Alistair Cox, Chief Executive of Hays adds that “If you thing what worked in the past will work in the future, and if you surround yourself with people who are unwilling to look to the future, you will face some difficulties.” 79% of those interviewed said that the rate of business change is increasing.

So, what’s to be done? Contributors put forward a number of ways CEOs can respond to the more complex, more volatile, more unpredictable environment they highlighted. They talk about the need to adapt, to develop agility, to make decisions based on partial data. “If you’re waiting for 100% of the information you’ll never make a decision, because the world is changing so quickly” says Danielle Harmer, Chief People Officer of Metro Bank.

Several interviewees feel that the role of the CEO is becoming more demanding, more public and more strategic. Social media increases the exposure and scrutiny of business leaders while raising expectations of engagement, transparency and honesty. Contributors point out the importance of solid preparation for the demands of the role, and appropriate support and development before, during and after fulfilling such a high-profile position. As Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith, Chief Executive of Mitie, says: “Public interest in these roles has grown significantly. It is a factor to consider with the role.”

The last word goes to John Stewart, Director of HR at SSE: “I don’t think anyone can know all the answers any more. They need to know how to ask the right questions.” This new report asks plenty of questions. Helpfully, it also gives some answers in an unpredictable world.

© Patrick Macdonald 2016

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