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Guest Column

Published on: Dec. 31, 2023, 7:03 p.m.
Immediate challenges
  • Image: Pixabay

By Naushad Forbes. The author is Past President, CII & Chairman, CII National Higher Education Committee

We live in an uncertain and challenging world.  Business leaders need to acquire the capability to deal with everything from economic upheaval to geopolitical risk.  This makes finding leaders that combine these capabilities with strong domain knowledge of the business a very difficult task.  An alternative is to take our existing high potential managers and add these ‘going beyond’ capabilities.  We need to do this at age levels typically 10 years younger than for their predecessors.

Today’s leaders have the responsibility to train tomorrow’s.  However, this is easier said than done, as senior executives are often overwhelmed by the demands on their time.  This limits devoting time to train their next level executives to take up leadership positions.  A focus on profitability and business development must be balanced with investing in people.

Today, managers become CEOs or hold leadership positions at 40 and below – and not only in start-ups.  The enthusiasm that younger leaders bring in for new models and processes is healthy, even as the experience of managing complex situations goes missing.  Training them to take up leadership positions and retaining them is a challenge for organisations. One strategy is for organisations to identify employees at junior level with high potential and begin to train them right away.

This training needs to move well beyond the traditional management development programmes offered by even the best business schools.  I would suggest that these high potentials gain a greater understanding of the world that provides them with the context to effectively lead the business.

‘Understanding the world’ is a grand phrase; what does it mean? Multi-disciplinary perspective is essential to solving complex problems.  Many of the best people in our organisations have graduated in engineering and management.  Giving them an appreciation of history, both political and economic, can provide understanding of why countries are the way they are. Understanding geopolitics is difficult without the context history provides. 

Sociology and anthropology can help in appreciating deeper motivations and social behavior.  Economic principles are fundamental to understanding why companies and countries succeed and fail.  It is crucial to understand how technology can be managed to build deep capabilities within the firm, while gaining from and contributing to the wider innovation system outside.  

In addition, all organisations need to be fully comfortable operating internationally.  Whether this means sourcing, selling, or manufacturing overseas, we need to be able to bring people from diverse cultures together and have them function as an effective team. We need to appreciate that no culture, including our own, is better than other cultures.  Bringing in the positives in many cultures and blending them into our own can lead to distinctive capabilities.

Finally, ‘emotional intelligence’ and ‘soft skills’ are critical skills needed to persuade, influence and convince others to achieve organisational goals.  Empathy can be learnt through practice, through consciously playing particular roles.

  • ‘Emotional intelligence’ and ‘soft skills’ are critical skills needed to persuade, influence and convince others to achieve organisational goals

Let’s put these thoughts to work.  Consider a grand-challenge issue.  COP 28 has just ended, with a commitment to phase down fossil fuels.  India has earlier committed to Net Zero by 2070.  Suppose, as a big thought experiment, that we bring that date forward to 2050, in line with the rest of the world.  What changes?

The technical issues are in themselves daunting, given that the bulk of our power in India is generated from coal. Then comes the economics: what role could significant carbon taxes play in pushing progress in a desired cleaner direction?  To make those taxes equitable, an ethical perspective should consider how these taxes can be used to target help at those who can least afford the higher costs.  The empathy that comes from understanding community impact can help us convince wider interest groups to go along. 

Political understanding can help build consensus and evaluate trade-offs.  And how can international understanding of the interests of our neighbours lead to better outcomes while we draw on the resources of the rich world to help finance our energy transition.

Only a multi-disciplinary, international and empathic perspective can really do justice to such a grand-challenge issue. Those are the skills we must build in our corporate leaders. Building them demands a long-term commitment to leadership development. Investing in people is the most durable source of competitive advantage.

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