Leading with purpose: Helping employees thrive in uncertain times

People are at the centre of every successful organisation, so finding and retaining them is key. But this has become incredibly challenging as the world changes so quickly. Inflexion’s Talent Director Freddy West hosted a panel to discuss this at the recent Portfolio Exchange.

Average tenure for a company within the S&P 500 has been declining rapidly: it was 33 years in 1965; 20 years in 1990 and it’ll shrink to 14 years by 2026. “Declining corporate tenures in the last half century point to a climate of accelerating change,” pointed out Freddy.

To discuss how best to lead organisations in times of increasing flux, she invited Simon Coble, Medik8 CEO; Alan Foster, Partner at ghSMART; Richard Segal, Chair of Peach; and Claudia Harris OBE, CEO of Makers.

The growing importance of LQ

Claudia reminded us that the role of the clerk didn’t disappear with the advent of the typewriter, rather, the expectations of what clerks could deliver went up.  Clerks needed to learn new skills to deliver a different version of their role.

The same applies to employees today, as they adjust to the advent of AI: “In an exponential age, it’s clear that the ability to learn is crucial” stressed Claudia. “This learning quotient (LQ) must be supported by emotional intelligence and resilience.  Employees with all three of these skills will be best able to navigate rapidly changing business environments.”

Successful leaders today possess the same attributes as successful leaders of yesterday

Alan noted that assessments of tens of thousands of CEOs suggested three attributes were key to successful leadership: the ability to set the right priorities, to hire the right people into the right roles, and to build relationships.  Alan said these skills would continue to define successful leadership, though agility was now increasingly also required, to help leaders navigate rapid change.

Richard agreed that the speed of change has been accelerated by technology and globalisation, requiring leaders who are more agile and in tune with workforces. 

Leaders need to take time to find the right employees and understand what they value

Claudia spoke of the opportunity for values-driven companies to appeal to Gen Z. “But it brings a lot of risk” she warned, with companies needing to stand behind their values rather than see them as rhetoric in order to truly woo Gen Z. “It’s incredibly important not to be cynical about it in the board room, since what Gen Z is doing is making the workplace better overall. It feels unfamiliar for our generation so there can be a cynicism about it, but the board needs to own it and believe it.”

Medik8 creates its own skincare so retains control of the supply chain. This isn’t just a big value driver in terms of business valuation, but – crucially – it helps attract talent. “This impacts how we interact with the teams and become a strong lever for recruitment. When we see what drives our customers’ behaviour, values aren’t in the top 5, but for employees, it counts for a lot,” Simon shares.

Taking the time to really get to know a candidate is important to ensure the fit is a good one. ghSMART applies the same rigour, including a structured 4 hour interview, to all its hires (from EAs to Senior Consultants) “to ensure we know how they think on their feet,” Alan says. He continues, “It’s also about not hiring mini-you’s; it goes against diversity and the unconscious bias means you can get the wrong person by hiring someone that looks like you.” This is also important because most of the people you want to hire already have a really good job somewhere else, so firms need to look for “hungry number 2s” and this takes time. “The more you can relax your assumptions about what good looks like, the better. Think laterally about sourcing talent.”

Boards need to be aware of the speed of change that’s coming.

Leaders can underestimate the level of change needed, according to Simon. Succeeding requires effective communication, experience, proof points, and a balanced scorecard across the board to attract and retail talent today.

And board meetings shouldn’t focus on last month’s results but look ahead to the future. “Look at one or maybe two areas max and deep dive into them to let the board really consider something that will move the needle of that organisation, and then consider how to get there,” stresses Richard. It’s key to ensure the board understands how new technology can work since this can be game-changing. He explains how AI is used to source leads and negotiate contracts with suppliers in a particular company, meaning the AI team is larger than the sales team. “It wasn’t a thing five years ago, but now it’s truly transforming businesses.”