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Leadership in the digital age

Grooming the next generation of corporate leaders is a far more complex task in today's business world.
Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 05:50
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"Leaders for tomorrow have to adopt a more open approach that allows for greater collaboration to embrace diverse capabilities." - PwC Singapore's Greg Unsworth
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"We want to challenge conventional ways of collaboration and encourage them (leaders) to explore the use of emerging technologies and data science solutions to remain relevant to our clients' needs and expectations." - Standard Chartered's Stanley Sia
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"Organisations need to keep in mind that they need to build leaders with a future focus, which means leaders that are relevant to the future, for example, those that are equipped with keen digital understanding and agility. These leaders also need to be front and centre of all efforts." - Deloitte Southeast Asia and Deloitte Singapore's Philip Yuen
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"From my observation, some factors which are important to the millennials are having an office environment which encourages communication and team activities and having an environment which allows them to air their ideas and unhappiness." - WongPartnership's Rachel Eng

THE business landscape has changed rapidly in recent years, as companies struggle with the rise of digital and disruptive technologies that are radically altering their industries. To thrive in such an environment, organisations are rushing to groom a new generation of leaders who are able to grapple with this onslaught of changes.

Complicating matters is the growing numbers of millennials in the workforce, who will make up the core of a company's leadership pool in the near future. With a different set of values from their predecessors, these employees need to be handled differently in order to get the best out of them.

With these challenges in mind, senior management will need to dedicate more time and resources to develop leaders, even during difficult times, says Philip Yuen, CEO, Deloitte Southeast Asia and Deloitte Singapore.

"Organisations need to keep in mind that they need to build leaders with a future focus, which means leaders that are relevant to the future, for example, those that are equipped with keen digital understanding and agility. These leaders also need to be front and centre of all efforts," says Mr Yuen, who is also Singapore divisional president of CPA Australia.

However, he warns that these capabilities cannot be brought about only through training, but are often best cultivated by exposing potential leaders to new and different experiences and challenges.

As such, organisations can no longer treat "learning" and "performing" as separate domains. "Traditionally, employees take a break from performing their daily tasks to go for learning programmes, but this concept is no longer useful in building leaders. Neither is unstructured on-the-job learning enough to keep pace," he explains.

Furthermore, organisations who want to thrive in a digital world will need more leaders who have deep expertise in a single field, but are also able to collaborate across disciplines with experts in other areas and to apply knowledge in areas of expertise outside their own, argues Rachel Eng, deputy chairman of law firm WongPartnership.

"To equip them with such skills, organisations will need to rotate the executives to various positions within the organisation as part of the leadership training," she says.

Some companies are going even further, and experimenting with new ways of helping leaders not only to collaborate better but also to use technology more effectively to meet customer needs.

Says Stanley Sia, managing director of alternative investments, wealth management, Standard Chartered Bank: "We want to challenge conventional ways of collaboration and encourage them to explore the use of emerging technologies and data science solutions to remain relevant to our clients' needs and expectations."

Standard Chartered announced in March this year the opening of eXellerator, a lab located in Singapore that aims to facilitate and develop innovative ideas and solutions across the bank's business units.

However, making a shift towards a collaborative leadership style is not always easy. It involves leaders acknowledging their natural leadership styles while seeking out mentors - or even reverse mentoring from younger employees - to help them gain new perspectives.

"Leaders for tomorrow have to adopt a more open approach that allows for greater collaboration to embrace diverse capabilities," says Greg Unsworth, digital business and risk assurance leader at PwC Singapore.

Focusing on the individual

Millennials represent an increasing share of the workforce and a growing number now occupy senior positions. Thus, companies must take into account their views on how a business should conduct itself.

Mr Yuen argues that organisations need to adapt to the "individualistic" nature of the millennial workforce and invest in understanding them better. "It is important to support the millennials' career and life ambitions, as well as provide opportunities for them to progress and become leaders."

To do so companies must relook their human resource practices to focus on the individual needs of this group. "This is likely a difficult step for HR functions as it goes against the natural grain of corporate consistency, but it is important that it gets done," he adds.

Meanwhile, Ms Eng notes that senior management has to engage millennial workers on a deeper level in order to generate the motivation for them to stay.

"From my observation, some factors which are important to the millennials are having an office environment which encourages communication and team activities and having an environment which allows them to air their ideas and unhappiness," she says.

Beyond the issue of millennials, however, companies must also focus on the larger goal of investing talent in the right way for each organisation, says Mr Unsworth.

"The first step may be to look at where the business sees itself in the future, align the talent strategy to the longer-term business plan, and identify pivotal roles and the skills sets required to be developed or acquired in future."