The five top attributes for leaders for 2022 and beyond – and they are all people centred

The role of leaders in organisations, who want to thrive, needs to become more people-centred and leaders will need to connect people to each other, and the organisation, to create a sense of belonging, says Jill Pennington

Expectations of leaders are constantly evolving in response to social and technological changes. As a result of Covid-19, some of these changes have been accelerated or magnified. Because of this, PSI Services carried out some research in 2021 to look at the future of leadership, which included the impact of the pandemic.

The findings highlighted a shift in emphasis towards human-centred leadership and humility. This reflects a greater focus on the employee experience as a driver for performance, as well as for attracting and retaining talent.

It also reflects the changing expectations of employees and organisations about leadership, which are partly due to Covid-19, rising levels of work-related stress, hybrid and remote working, and the relentless pressure on organisations to respond to ever changing demands.

PSI’s global research¹ comprised of a survey of 1077 employees and 838 leaders across 21 countries from a wide range of organisations. Thirty-five senior HR leaders from a range of global organisations were also interviewed with the overall aim to gather the employee, leader, and organisational perspectives of leadership, both now and in the future.

What are the top five challenges facing leaders for the next five years?

The research showed consensus among employees and leaders that the top five challenges facing leaders for the next five years are:

  1. Attracting and retaining employees
  2. Motivating and engaging employees
  3. Employee wellbeing
  4. Collaboration and communication
  5. Remote and hybrid working

Interviews across international organisations also showed similar predictions, adding managing constant change and increasing digitalisation as top challenges for leadership. It is worth noting that these too were heavily referenced in the context of people – for example, how can leaders win hearts and minds and ensure followship during change? How can leaders navigate the impact of digitalisation on the experience of work and maintain engagement?

During the height of Covid-19, organisations reported that effective leaders increased their personal connection with employees. Both employees and organisations reported that effective leaders had shown more personal interest and concern, and had communicated more clearly and regularly about vision and goals during the pandemic. This shift towards more personal and individual connection was something that organisations want their leaders to maintain post pandemic.

What are the key leadership attributes required to navigate these changes?

So, with the top leadership challenges and the impact of Covid-19 on employees’ and organisations’ expectations, what are the top five leadership attributes that are seen to impact most on organisational performance? Both employees and leaders agree that these are:

  1. Inspiring, motivating, and engaging people
  2. Fostering collaboration, trust, and respect
  3. Empowering people to deliver
  4. Coaching and developing people
  5. Being open, authentic, and ethical

These attributes are largely the same as those that leaders and employees told us impact most positively on the employee experience. The organisational interviews added three further attributes – humility, ability to create psychological safety and systems thinking. They highlighted the nature of the challenges facing leaders as being so complex that they can no longer hold the mindset that they know all the answers hence the need to empower and enable others to contribute views and ideas and the need for them to create a ‘safe’ environment in which they feel willing and able to do this. Systems thinking is required to make sense of ambiguity, or complex information, to provide clarity for others and enable decision making.

Underpinning these attributes, a leader’s character and authenticity is seen to be increasingly important. This incorporates the motives and values around leadership as well as self-awareness, authenticity, and ability to self-manage. There is a clear shift in thinking that effective leaders are motivated by creating value through others, and helping them develop, rather than seeking personal power and status. Those leaders who act in the interests of the greater good are seen by organisations to be more effective because they create a positive climate and employee experience.

Maintaining the positive impact of Covid on leadership

PSI’s research shows that human-centred leadership has a positive impact on employee experience and organisational effectiveness. However, as we emerge from the severity of the pandemic, there is a high risk that the pressure of recovery, increased hybrid working, and continuing disruption caused by Covid-19 will mean leaders refocus on task at the expense of people.

In the research, only half of leaders (51%) felt their organisation’s climate enabled them to be an effective leader to a large or very large extent, and only 37% said that they felt very or fully prepared for future challenges. So, what do leaders need to do to lead in more human ways and how can organisations provide this?

Providing development for leaders in the leadership attributes listed above will obviously build capability in leaders. So too would development in emotional intelligence which includes exploration of the impact of mindset on behaviour, so they are able to systemically apply learning and maintain sustainable behaviour shift.

The impact of this development though can only be fully realised in organisations that are set up to enable people-centred leadership. Unfortunately, the statistics around workplace stress indicate that many organisations are struggling to provide this context as we see increasing levels of work-related stress, depression, or anxiety.

Factors commonly cited as causing work related stress, depression or anxiety are workload pressures, tight timelines, too much responsibility, and lack of managerial support. Organisations need to become more people-centric, as well as their leaders. This involves adopting a people lens to everything that the organisation does, starting with creating a clear and compelling purpose.

With the increase in talent mobility and hybrid working, organisation purpose is becoming more important with some organisations even looking to create a new role – Chief Purpose Officer.

The purpose needs to describe why the organisation does what it does, and what it stands for, rather than simply focusing on revenue or profit generation. Providing meaning to work is a way of regaining engagement, attracting, and retaining talent, reducing stress, and connecting people to a common ‘campfire’.

What can organisations do to be more people-centric?

Many organisations are reviewing key touchpoints in the employee lifecycle to ensure that they are personal and positive rather than tick box, reducing bureaucracy around performance management and goal setting, for example.

They are also increasing opportunities for employees to connect with each other to collaborate, innovate, and learn, as well as enabling connections outside of the organisation.

Finally, organisations are creating space for leaders to lead by restructuring their roles and setting new expectations of them.

All of these are some of the steps that organisations are taking to be more people-centric.

Summing up

PSI’s research confirmed the impact of Covid in shifting the goalposts for organisations and highlighted the extent to which organisations need to focus on employee experience. Hybrid working tends to weaken personal connections between employees and their employers. Increased use of technology to connect also has the potential to weaken the emotional and social connection between employees and organisations.

This means the role of leaders in organisations, who want to thrive, needs to become more people-centred. Leaders will need to connect people to each other, and the organisation, to create a sense of belonging.

On first sight, the research unearthed no major shocks or surprises about the future of leadership. However, it did reveal a shift in emphasis and focus, in terms of what employees and organisations expect from leaders now and going forward. What it has highlighted is the real need for people-centred leadership to overcome the challenges facing organisations in today’s context. As we delve more and more into this, we realise the enormity of the changes required to enable this to happen.

Jill Pennington is Vice President, International Consulting, PSI Services.

Jill leads an International Consulting solutions team for PSI Talent Management. She is an experienced L&D professional having worked in the field of leadership development for over 25 years. Jill has worked with leaders at all levels including executive boards and has coached CEOs and senior executives on a global scale.

Jill’s career includes in house roles where she has led L&D and Talent acquisition teams for large corporate organisations including Ford Motor Company, Diageo, and Zurich. She has also worked for several consultancies before joining PSI in 2016. She has worked with a wide range of clients focusing on organisation change, leadership development and team development and coaching.

Jill Pennington is Vice President, International Consulting, PSI Services

Jill leads an International Consulting solutions team for PSI Talent Management. She is an experienced L&D professional having worked in the field of leadership development for over 25 years. Jill has worked with leaders at all levels including executive boards and has coached CEOs and senior executives on a global scale.

Jill’s career includes in house roles where she has led L&D and Talent acquisition teams for large corporate organisations including Ford Motor Company, Diageo, and Zurich. She has also worked for several consultancies before joining PSI in 2016. She has worked with a wide range of clients focusing on organisation change, leadership development and team development and coaching.

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