5 New Skills Needed for Leadership in 2020

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Jeanne Meister

Innovative new styles of leadership—ones that are collaborative, personalized, technologically adept and culturally attuned—will be required in the 2020 workplace. "Sometime over the next decade your company will be challenged to change in ways for which it has no precedent," notes management guru Gary Hamel. Leaders need to be rooted in the present while looking toward the future, to meet the demands of a constantly shifting and global marketplace.

Demographic shifts with regard to the age, race and gender of employees across the world mean that the 2020 workplace will not look like the 2010 workplace. In the United States, this will result in a workplace that is half female, 63 percent Caucasian (down from 82 percent in 2010), and nearly one-third Hispanic.


But the biggest change the 2020 workplace will present is the most age-diverse workplace: by 2020 there will be five generations in the workplace at once. From Traditionalists born prior to 1946, to members of Generation 2020, who will begin entering the workplace in 2015, leaders will be charged with meeting the wide range of expectations held by each generation.

Going Global

Leaders will encounter a marketplace more globally dispersed. Many companies are embracing globalization: partnering with companies from other countries, setting up global headquarters outside the United States, and adjusting their cultures to support their global reach. This means changing work hours, cultural-awareness training, team-leading with offshore counterparts, and an increasing reliance on social and digital technologies.

Going Digital

Increased access to global markets is facilitated by rapid growth in the use of social technologies and networks. Virtual worlds, teleconferencing, blogs and vlogs, Skype, instant messaging, wikis, social networks, chat boards, and videoand document-sharing sites allow for instant transfer of information, feedback, and decision-making. This realtime information transparency has democratized information—and changed what is required of the 2020 leader.

Leaders can’t afford to merely function in supervisory roles. They must act as a hub for rapidly cycling activity in all areas of the company. Effective leaders live in the day-to-day environment of operational execution and thus must be integrated with management. As one study notes, leadership involves leading from within, fitting into the group, and exerting influence—not imposing views.

Thus leadership skills are more useful when developed holistically, not in isolation. How do these trends create change in the future leader? The characteristics of what it took to be a great leader in the past—integrity, customer commitment, and vision—will be retained, says Marshall Goldsmith. However, "five different qualities will be added: global leadership, cross-cultural appreciation, technology savvy, building alliances and partnerships, and sharing leadership."

According to a poll of over 2,000 transgenerational employees, the most desired skills in a leader include those mentioned by Goldsmith as well as prioritizing the development of people and anticipating the future and building institutional capability to address it.

Five Key Skills of 2020 Leaders

We have integrated these factors into these five key skills:

1. Collaborative mindset. We need leaders who have a collaborative mindset, work comfortably in a networked environment, cooperate with competitors, deal across cultures, and navigate complex markets. Since employees list honest feedback as one of the most desired skills in a leader, new protocols are being created to provide a continuous stream of real time and instant feedback.

New forms of mentoring include group-, reverse-, micro- and anonymous mentoring. Team based leadership options, such as collaborative councils and boards, facilitate cross-team functionality. Leaders seek and consider input from all employees. 2020 leaders will factor in the input of various thoughts, experiences, and skills and deploy them for fast, productive results.

2. Team development. Younger generations consider work an integral part of their lives. Thus, they need their job to be fulfilling and hold the promise of advancement. On top of the open feedback loop they want from bosses, they also want career guidance, relevant training, learning opportunities, and to feel part of a community. A leader with a collaborative mind-set spends time on building rapport and trust. Focusing on the individual will be the key to retaining employees, as the 2020 leader forges teams that rise to the challenge of networked leading.

3. Tech savvy. The 2020 leader needs to be conversant in the technology of the newest generation of workers. They will need to use social technologies as a means of keeping all the outlying components of the company in a realtime, two-way information loop. Social media tools invite transparency, inclusion, and instant communication to address changing market situations. Beyond being digitally confident, they must seek new means of revolutionizing their company’s technical proficiency.

4. Globally focused and culturally attuned. As companies become more global, they’re exposed to how the economic policies and governance strategies of countries affect other nations. Leaders need to be competent at working with foreign governments. Since their employees will be working with peoplefrom different cultures, they’ll need to leverage the unique skills of all and create cohesion. Our intertwined destinies call for leaders who can build companies that focus on the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profits.

5. Future-facing. Scanning the marketplace, identifying trends, and building new skill-sets will ensure long-term viability and sustainability. Competitiveness requires innovation proliferation—creating a culture of ongoing invention, creative thinking, and multiple-horizon thinking—the ability to rationalize the distribution of resources and effort across the present and future to balance incremental and bold moves.

Leaders who can take collaboration to a new level in building their teams, and who can use the digital tools to their greatest effect, will direct their companies into a dynamic future.

This article, cowritten with Karie Willyerd, first appeared in Leadership Excellence