A colleague from 20 years ago recently called and asked “What leadership qualities are relevant in today’s job market?” As he was set to leave the company where he stayed for 20 years and was scheduled to talk with a potential new employer, he wondered whether he would still be considered valuable and relevant. I shared with him top two things that came to my mind, which I believed would make him more relevant in today’s business environment.
My colleague and I worked as business unit managers and we used to look for evidences of stability and solidness whenever we hired or promoted someone in our respective teams. Today, while they are still important, we tend to look for the ability to quickly adapt, learn and grow in a new environment, culture, job role or organization.
Adaptability is defined by mindtools.com as the “ability to change or be changed to fit new circumstances.” Going out of our comfort zones and taking some risks are hallmarks of being adaptable. Mindtools.com suggests an adaptability assessment, which is based on four levels: openness to new ideas, adaptation to situations, handling of unexpected demands and adapting or changing strategy.
During my early years as a manager, I was relocated from Philippines to Malaysia and was tasked to lead and manage teams and partners from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, India and Pakistan. As it was my first international assignment, it was a big test at all four levels – openness, adapting, managing ambiguities and changing. In hindsight, what worked then was my youth and enthusiasm. My desire to know and understand better actually pushed me to continuously engage my team, ask them questions, listen to their inputs, and act right away. I believe such openness and enthusiasm are required to remain flexible.
Henry Plotkin, a psychologist and author, wrote that we tend to “generalize into the future what worked in the past.” We would usually do whatever worked in the past; and we would avoid whatever didn’t work. This is also called our mental scripts, which may result in clinging to the notion that “this is how we have always done it”, refusing to understand and accept the realities of a new situation. To be adaptable is to be able to overcome our mental scripts.
For instance, I shifted from a business unit that catered to the financial sector to one that catered to the motion picture industry. From wearing suits, being formal and speaking like a banker, I had to quickly change my ways by wearing more casual attire, being more conversational in tone, and visiting production or post-production sets. I had to speak the language of the directors and cinematographers, and earn the trust of my artistic customers then. Though it didn’t come to me naturally, I eventually became comfortable through my willingness and determination to learn, change and grow in my new role.
Adaptability is truly a leadership quality needed in today’s world. Economist Intelligence Unit, conducted a 2008 study entitled Growing Global Executive Talent, which showed that the top three leadership qualities important over the years ahead include: the ability to motivate staff (35 percent); the ability to work well across cultures (34 percent); and the ability to facilitate change (32 percent). Surprisingly, the least important were technical expertise (11 percent) and “bringing in the numbers” (10 percent).
The second leadership quality that I believe is important is authenticity. Authenticity perfectly complements adaptability. While we have to flexible to be effective in our different roles in life, we need to stay true to our values and goals. We all have our principles and values in life, which guide our behavior and choices that considerably impact our human interactions and our success.
Mindtools.com defines authenticity as being “true to your own personality, values, and spirit, regardless of the pressure that you’re under to act otherwise. You’re honest with yourself and with others, and you take responsibility for your mistakes. Your values, ideals, and actions align. As a result, you come across as genuine, and you’re willing to accept the consequences of being true to what you consider to be right.”
As today’s work environment requires dealing with a diverse and sometimes conflicting needs – as working with different generations, cultures, and work demands would prove – it could be a challenge to stay grounded and anchored to one’s true self. For instance, I’ve been in office meetings characterized by aggressiveness and hostility from some participants. In meetings like those, my choices would either be to mirror the negative approach, or to respond differently. While it’s not easy and could be mistaken as “soft”, I would often respond based on my values of respect and harmony. When I would respond calmly, the other party would begin to calm down as well.
Being authentic sometimes means making unpopular choices. Yet these choices always bring peace of mind, as they are based on one’s personal core values. Being authentic means having a strong belief or conviction, and being able to defend or stand by it regardless of the consequence, which is good foundation for strong leadership. Being authentic means being transparent in communicating, even if the truth might not please the other person or party.
According to author and educator, Bruna Martinuzzi, “Transparent communication is a by-product of authentic leaders’ lucid thinking and uncompromising ethic. Such leaders say a great deal with a few words, and there is no communication gap between their internal vision of the world and its outward expression. There is directness in their language. This transparency in communication is the holy grail of leadership, especially today – with a reported four million blogs in the blogosphere – where a lack of transparency can be particularly detrimental to an organization.” Bruna further said, “Straight talk, self-confidence, and simplicity – these are the building blocks of substance; the triumph over image.” I totally subscribe to these ‘3S of substance’ – which I’d say are the same building blocks of authenticity.
For my colleague from 20 years ago and myself, adaptability and authenticity are not really new. They’re the same qualities we’ve been taught to demonstrate in the company where we worked together. But the meaning and impact of demonstrating these two qualities in today’s environment are more appreciated and recognized. In a recent study “State of the Economy and Employment” survey from Adecco Staffing US, 44 percent of respondents cited soft skills — such as communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration — as the area with the biggest gap. In fact, only 22 percent cited a lack of technical skills as the culprit for the U.S. skills gap. Indeed, the soft skills that we have developed strongly as managers and leaders over the years are key to staying relevant.
Constant changes, aggressive competition, and the generation Y’s or millennials fill the workplace today. By being both adaptable and authentic, we could blend in and stand out at the same time. We could serve as a leader, a peer-partner to work with and a mentor to the younger generation. We could role model the soft skills that could differentiate versus competition. We could teach interpersonal communication skills that were sharpened when email and sms were not yet acceptable in business communications. Our value and impact in today’s business and work environment are indeed more relevant than ever!