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Skills that the next generation of business leaders need


BRIGHT-EYED and bushy-tailed employees climbing the corporate ladder often have this mistaken notion that performing tasks well is all it takes to get to the next rung. But the reality is that technical competency does not make you the best candidate to get promoted and manage a team.

More is demanded from business leaders today, making the hunt to fill top jobs even more difficult. A 2016 LinkedIn study on leadership challenges revealed that organisations in South-east Asia, including Singapore, are struggling to find the managerial talent they need to run and grow their business.

More significantly, 79 per cent of HR decision makers in the region report difficulty in hiring local leaders, while 42 per cent of them have less than half their leadership positions filled with local talent.

The Business Times takes a look at what has gone wrong in our leadership talent pipeline and what aspiring leaders can do to make themselves eligible.

So why is it so tough to fill top jobs? The LinkedIn study found two main factors for this phenomenon: firstly, applicants lack soft skills including key leadership competencies. Secondly, there is a lack of leadership development focus within the organisation.

Soft skills such as coaching usually end up at the "bottom of things", Craig Perrin, head of product development, at leadership development organisation AchieveForum, tells BT. "We have lots of people who are very talented technically, but they lack the ability to lead others. People skills (are) the foundation for effective leadership, but these things are not emphasised in business school."

He points out that this situation is often seen in sales, where a great salesperson gets promoted to become sales manager, but end up floundering. "They can't share their skills and bring people along and create an environment where people are motivated to succeed."

Other interpersonal skills under that umbrella include helping your employees acquire skills to deal with challenging situations, moving them along, and helping them shape a career path; all of which are often neglected by aspiring leaders.

Now, if your company is having problems hiring leaders, it would make sense to solve the problem at the root by grooming potentials from within. But sadly, as the LinkedIn survey shows, this is not the case.

"While many companies may say talent development is their top priority, the reality is that with the pressure to deliver topline growth and expansion plans, 'short-termism' can get in the way of pro-actively planning for leadership succession," says Olivier Legrand, managing director, Asia-Pacific and Japan, LinkedIn. In other words, companies are too busy fighting fire on a regular basis instead of nurturing potential candidates for future roles.

A third of organisations in the survey also have not engaged in succession planning in the last year. In the case of Singapore, Mr Legrand says that looking for CEOs or board directors may be particularly challenging, as "demand outpaces supply". "The competition for these top executives is very high due to the country's status as a regional business hub. At the same time, the number of executives of this calibre may not be sufficient to satisfy demand."

In a separate 2016 LinkedIn study on key skills aspiring CXOs (C-suite level executives) need to have, it was found that more than half have had international experience, be it for work or education.

Eric Wong, head of talent acquisition, Asia Pacific, Fitbit, says young managers here tend to lack exposure to the region as there is less incentive for them to move out of the country. "This creates a situation where local talent don't get to develop themselves or achieve a certain level of awareness that is needed for a leader as all the regional headquarters, top jobs are here."

Another trait that the study identified among CXOs was that many had cross-functional experience. For example, CEOs and COOs in Singapore also have experience in marketing, finance and supply chain management. The ability to harness the synergy of the various functions is a quality Mr Wong looks for in high-level leadership positions. "Functional competencies are a given. So is the ability to understand the industry and the business value proposition. But in particular, being able to pool the different functions together to drive profitability is one important factor."

In general, however, one key trait that experts agree on is the need for young executives to take calculated risks and venture to stand out from the pack. Instead of waiting to be groomed or identified as having leadership potential, professionals need to take charge of their own career trajectory in order to rise up the ranks.

This means being proactive in voicing your career aspirations to your superiors and putting in place plans to work towards it. This is especially vital for those in companies without the culture of providing feedback or appraisals.

If you are aiming to reach the top, don't just go with the flow - you could miss out when a promotion opportunity comes along.