Finding Leaders Who Can Take on Today’s Complexities: 8 Capabilities Recruiters Should Put on the List

It’s a complex world out there. Thanks to globalization and technology, organizations need leaders at all levels who’ll be able to step up to the challenge and help them take advantage of the opportunities present in volatile and uncertain business environments. So what specific capabilities should recruiters look for in new talent?

A number of the old standbys should remain high on the list. Every organization needs leaders who understand the importance of customer focus, who can communicate effectively, and who can manage talent.

But today’s organizations need other capabilities to take on today’s intricacies. Based on our research, and on our work with organizations around the world, we’ve come up with a list of eight abilities that recruiters will want to make sure their candidates possess — or can develop. Today’s leaders must be able to:

  • Manage Complexity: In a complex world, the ability to manage that complexity is critical. But what does it mean to actually manage complexity? It requires that leaders fully understand how their organizations and environments work as well as how they fit within a complicated array of interdependent systems. Today’s leaders must be able to envision and prepare for multiple future scenarios, without relying on assumptions about the past. And they must make sure that their organizations adopt practices that enable quick responses to change.
  • Act Strategically: While organizations have always needed leaders who can formulate, communicate, and implement plans to create competitive advantage for their businesses, what’s different now is that it’s no longer possible to rely on a long-term strategy that’s fine-tuned every year or so. Today’s leaders must be continually able to adjust strategy as needed to respond to a constantly and rapidly changing landscape.
  • Cultivate Learning Agility: In order to succeed in today’s environment, leaders must be able to approach work with a continuous learning orientation, routinely seeking out — and learning from experiences in which they can acquire new skills. Leaders should be open to searching out lessons from both successful and unsuccessful outcomes. Leaders may also have to do some unlearning, as approaches that worked well in the past may not work in a new context. One example: many multinationals in the past relied on expat managers to run operations in other countries; today, many global organizations are finding more success when they draw from local talent.
  • Develop Personal Adaptability: Leaders who demonstrate personal adaptability stay focused and effective however complex, uncertain, and ambiguous the situation. They also need to exhibit a number of traits — flexibility, resilience, creativity — that demonstrate that they can adapt quickly when things don’t work out as anticipated, and take appropriate risks. Developing adaptability skills requires both the ability to manage basic pressures (time, energy, stress) and an ability to scan the business horizon and spot future opportunities.
  • Foster Innovation: No organization stays on top for long without innovating. Innovation takes many forms — new offerings, new processes, new business models, new business relationships — and can be incremental or disruptive. But without building an organization that enables continuous strategic innovation, no leader can sustain success. Leaders need to establish the structures, processes, and resources that support innovation, and build a culture that encourages and rewards it.
  • Inspire Engagement: In a 2013 survey on the “State of the Global Workplace,” Gallup found troubling results: “The bulk of employees worldwide — 63 percent — are “not engaged,” meaning they lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes. And 24 percent are “actively disengaged,” indicating they are unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers.” Leaders must foster a culture that connects individual aspirations and values to the larger purpose of the organization, encourages idea sharing, and recognizes — and rewards — high performance. With a culture of engagement, an organization will improve productivity and make it easier to attract and retain talent.
  • Leverage Networks: Networking may once have been viewed as individuals jockeying for power and promotion. Today, networking is how the work of an organization gets done. Leaders need to be able to build networks that cross boundaries both within their organizations, fostering collaboration across functional, unit, and geographic boundaries and outside of their organizations and strengthening bonds with customers, suppliers, strategic partners, and even competitors. Likewise, leaders need to build a culture that promotes networking and enables it to thrive.
  • Manage Global Business: Since emerging economies provide significant growth opportunities, leaders must be solidly grounded in how to compete effectively in a global business environment. A leader for today’s business must be able to craft a coherent global strategy that accommodates diverse regional and country tactics. For a global strategy to succeed, a leader must also be able to navigate culturally complex and nuanced business situations, and consider the broader context of country markets, economics, and politics when making day-to-day business decisions.

As a recruiter, you’ll want your clients to have the leaders they need to manage the realities of today’s business world. Use these eight capabilities when evaluating candidates to ensure that your clients build a pipeline of strong leaders.

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Louise Axon is director of content strategy and development for Harvard Business Publishing’s Corporate Learning group. She leads the design, development, and curation of Harvard Business Publishing’s leadership solutions. She has 25 years of experience in executing strategic change and delivering business results through learning, with particular expertise in developing leaders at all levels.

Elisa Friedman is a senior content strategist in Harvard Business Publishing’s Corporate Learning group, where she creates and manages content for leadership solutions. She has more than 15 years of experience in online product design and development.

Kathy Jordan is a senior editor with Harvard Business Publishing’s Corporate Learning group. She has provided editorial guidance, instructional design, and content curation for a number of Harvard Business Publishing’s award-winning leadership solutions. Her work with Harvard Business Publishing’s Corporate Learning group is informed by over 20 years of experience working with Fortune 500 companies as an organization development consultant and executive coach.

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2 Comments on “Finding Leaders Who Can Take on Today’s Complexities: 8 Capabilities Recruiters Should Put on the List

  1. Thanks for contributing this article. You made all great points, especially about fostering engagement. One of my favorite books (and book titles) is, “I Quit But Forgot To Tell You” by Terri Kabachnick. The book has some tremendous quotes:

    Engaged workers believe the grass is greener on their side.

    The top 2 reasons for employee disengagement are (1) lack of recognition and (2) lack of communication.

    GIVE: Specific goals and the freedom to achieve them in a personalized way. DO NOT: Place specific focus on how tasks are performed.

    No great idea ever enters the brain through the mouth.

    Jim Roddy
    Author, Hire Like You Just Beat Cancer

  2. Amazing how similar these capabilities are to the recent Korn Ferry leadership competency model– which is a mash up of the Lominger and PDI competencies. Of course, all the major science-based competency models ought to iterate on the same constructs. Those that didn’t would have to be suspect or at least selective. Would be interested in what constituted your “research”.

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