People Profession 2030: why leaders have a pivotal role to play in the future world of work

Discusses how leadership will impact future organisational changes

Our report, People Profession 2030: a collective view of future trends, brings together insights from hundreds of people professionals via a series of virtual roundtables and a virtual hackathon. The report highlights which trends will influence the future world of work, and the people profession’s role within this. These trends are:

  • internal change: evolving organisational models, structures, and processes 
  • digital and technological transformation 
  • changing demographics and D&I strategy 
  • diversifying employment relationships
  • sustainability, purpose and responsible business.

We also recognise that the impact of these external trends is influenced by how a business reacts and adapts. This is shaped by internal factors like people management, culture and leadership. We’ve explored this ecosystem in previous articles, including the role of culture. In this article, we discuss how leadership will impact future organisational changes.

Organisations need to adapt, and change requires leadership

COVID-19 has demonstrated that organisations can adapt quickly – and they will continue to do so as we weather the impacts of the pandemic and beyond. Change is inevitable and responding to external disruptors will always be important for businesses. During our hackathon, many noted that business models and processes aren’t currently designed to be agile, so internal change will be a future trend. But change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and sustainable change requires engagement and buy-in across the business.

Leaders play a pivotal role here. As one hackathon participant noted: ‘This constantly changing environment requires effective leadership and managers who can act as connecting agents to [enable] innovation… and [adapt organisation design].’ There’s been plenty of research on what leadership style is most effective in managing change (for example, whether transformational or transactional leadership is linked to successful change implementation). There are many important leader characteristics, but the way leaders communicate change, manage issues and role model new behaviours will influence the success of organisational change and the organisation’s culture.

Leaders establish the ‘tone from the top’ and set behavioural norms. A key question for one hackathon participant was ’what are the leadership behaviours we need to be able to deliver our new models and purpose? You change culture by changing leadership behaviours, not by doing a cultural change programme’. Other people professionals emphasised the importance of clear messaging, transparency, and servant leadership behaviours (serving the organisation and its people) as vital to future success.

Internal change will always be a reality in our organisation. Leaders have a pivotal role in leading change, and doing so in a purpose-led, sustainable way that considers the needs and perspectives of different stakeholder groups, taking a principles-based, ethical approach to decision-making.

Purpose-led business requires purpose-led leadership

Another of the five key trends surfaced in the hackathon was sustainability, purpose and responsible business. This recognises the rising priority given to more responsible business practices and the importance of purpose-led business.

As one people professional said: ‘It’s no longer enough for companies to comply with legislation, to be successful we must be a force for good. Employees increasingly want their work to serve a higher purpose and to feel aligned with the values of their employer.’

We discuss trust, leadership and responsible business in our recent report Responsible business through crisis, where many leaders recognised that having clear purpose and values acted as a guiding light in decision-making through COVID-19. Leaders need to create and role model those values. Setting values, purpose and mission will be more important for leaders in the context of social change and increased expectations from investors and employees to adopt more sustainable business practices.

Beyond the pandemic, we could also see a shift in business offerings and practices in the wake of external regulation and pressure for sustainability in the future. Values and purpose-led leadership will need to continue to weave through decision-making. Our Purposeful leadership report highlights characteristics like the moral self, commitment to stakeholders and vision as key parts of leader behaviour for more ethical and purpose-based organisations that take a long-term, sustainable approach.

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