Leadership skills for the year 2030

(Illustration by Marco Goran Romano)
(Illustration by Marco Goran Romano)

What will be the hot leadership skills of the future? The ability to thrive amid uncertainty? To handpick talented employees in a remote region of China? Or just to stay awake as you're asked to globe-trot three continents in three days?

The management consulting firm Hay Group worked with the German futurists at Z-Punkt to identify six mega trends such as globalization, technology convergence and the individualization of careers that will shape the kind of leaders companies will need in the future. I spoke with Georg Vielmetter, Hay Group's regional director of leadership and talent, about the newly released study "Leadership 2030" that he co-authored.

We spoke about what an "altrocentric" leader is, how Asian leaders are more focused than Western leaders on emotional workplace issues, and why managers shouldn't even bother trying to get employees to be loyal to their company. The Q&A below was lightly edited for space and clarity.

Q. How did the idea for this study come about? 

A. It was based on a lot of client conversations. I saw a lot of concern and anxiety with people I talked to: They thought China would become a dominant superpower. They didn't know how to deal with digital natives. They saw a shift in work-life balance. They saw cost explosions in their business. There was an anxiety in the business world that things would change dramatically, and that people lack a conceptual framework to understand how the changes will look. 

Q. The six mega trends you discuss all expand in some way on issues that leaders are already facing now. Did your research turn up any truly fresh insights that no one is even thinking about today? 

A. Of course we don’t have a crystal ball. We were hesitant to make hard predictions on single statements or events in 2030 because you can't really take that very seriously. Some of the trends have started already and will accelerate and go on in the future. Others may have a more disruptive impact — like the consequences of 3D printing, for instance. It’s possible that in 10 years, specific parts for cars will be printed out in China or Brazil or Russia where the cars are assembled. That of course will have extreme consequences for those countries and could be a revolution in production.

Q. What about the structure of corporations? What's the most compelling insight that your research turned up in the way people will work together, or how leaders will manage their companies?

A. I think that positional power and hierarchical power will become smaller. Power will shift to stakeholders, reducing the authority of the people who are supposed to lead the organization. That might not sound very radical, but I think it has quite radical implications.

Take globalization: If you have two billion middle-class people worldwide that you have to serve [instead of 800 million], your local leaders will become stronger. They must become stronger. You can no longer centrally organize all of this.

Q. One of the terms I liked from the intro was the description of a post-heroic leadership style that’s needed. What does this mean?

A. By "post-heroic" I meant that the time of the heroic leader is over. The time of the alpha male — of the dominant, typically male leader who knows everything, who gives direction to everybody and sets the pace, whom everybody follows because this person is so smart and intelligent and clever — this time is over. We need a new kind of leader who focuses much more on relationships and understands that leadership is not about himself.

Q. In other words, they need to be what you call “altrocentric” leaders. Can you explain that concept?

A. It's the opposite of the egocentric leader. "Altrocentric" means focusing on others. Such a leader doesn't doesn't put himself at the very center. He knows he needs to listen to other people. He knows he needs to be intellectually curious and emotionally open. He knows that he needs empathy to do the job, not just in order to be a good person.

Q. In a paper summarizing the book's findings, you write: “Asian management practices and models will become more influential.” What are some Asian management practices that would surprise Western managers, or that aren't yet common in the United States or Europe? 

A. What you find more often in Asia is what we sometimes call the "affiliated" leadership style. By that I mean a leadership style that focuses very much on the emotions at work: How do people relate to each other? Is there a positive climate? Are people having fights? Do I as a leader intervene if there are fights?

We know from research that this style is much more common in Asia than it is in most of the West. It's a good leadership style to have. It has elements of caring; it ensures there’s emotional stability in the workplace. This is something we could imagine will become stronger as Asian companies grow.

Q. I was also struck by the phrase “departure doesn’t mean ‘disloyal.’” So many employment relationships are based on the opposite of this premise, from noncompete agreements to reports that companies in Silicon Valley actually vow not to poach employees from each other. How do you think this should change in the future? 

A. We will see a significant decline in physical loyalty between people and organizations. It will be very difficult for leaders to formally bind people to their organizations, so they should not try. This is a battle that leaders can only lose. Loyalty doesn’t need to mean "I have a fixed contract with a company."

Network arrangements will likely determine who you work with on a much more regular basis in the future. I call it personal loyalty. Leaders need to develop personal relationships with crucial individuals, independent from whether these people work with the organization on a fixed contract or not.

Q. What about being multilingual? How important will that be for managers in the future? 

A. What is clear is that leaders in the future need to have a full understanding, and also an emotional understanding, of diversity. That's for sure. On the language question: The lingua franca of business is English. We all need to speak English. I try to imagine a company in 2030. It's select science fiction, but someday people could theoretically have virtual video conferences where they all speak their native language because they are simultaneously translated.

So while I don’t think this is really a big problem, there are still many reasons to learn a second language. If you know only one language, it limits the possibility to understand different cultures properly. 

Q. You also looked at the issue of managing and leading digital natives. There has been so much ink spilled on managing millennials and how they're different from the generations that came before them. Did your research unearth any new insights?

A. Many people are too pessimistic that the world is coming down because of this new generation. I'm not so anxious about this generation, but I think it’s right to say that the IT revolution over the last 20 years is the kind of revolution that really dramatically changes our lives. There's a real difference between learning this in your twenties and learning this when you are two years old.

There is research that this generation is not willing to lead. With the Baby Boomer generation, you understood you climb up the ladder and you're the boss at the end. The new generation has less and less interest to do this. I say this neutrally. For them it’s just not so important to become the boss. That causes a big problem for organizations. They offer people big jobs, and they don’t want them. They value their private life more. 

Q. So what should organizations do?

A. They need to become more flexible in their career paths. They need to make what we call "expert careers" for people who are ambitious, and who want to earn more money, but who don’t really want to have responsibility for managing other people.

They also need to be much more flexible with other career paths. Two years ago I was working with a private equity firm in a deal and was talking to the management team of the company they took over. The CFO worked part time, only three days a week, because she had a baby. Ten years before, you would not have found a female CFO. And the CFO of an organization who works three days out of five? That was just impossible. The organization would have liked her to work longer. They had to compromise. They knew she was the best person, they wanted to keep her, and they made their arrangements more flexible.

Read also:

The resume that makes for a top executive

The best and worst times to do things at work

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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