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24th Feb 2023

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How leaders can turn challenges into opportunities for sustainable growth


Over the past couple of years, leaders could be forgiven for developing a certain tunnel vision while navigating one challenge after another. Rising inflation and interest rates, the looming threat of recession, climate change, geopolitical upheaval, along with a WEF warning that the global economy can expect ‘constant volatility and multiple surprises’ over the coming years. This is to say nothing of the pandemic, the fallout from which many leaders are still dealing with.


But these challenges have triggered a mass refocus among leaders everywhere, who are under pressure to not only meet the bottom-line goal, but also be in touch with their organisation’s values, how they manage talent, organise supply chains, how their actions affect the environment, and how they engage with employees, clients and local communities. Leaders must reimagine their organisation’s path forward, identifying the hidden opportunities within threats and challenges while reconnecting with their organisation’s mission, vision and values – becoming leaders for tomorrow, not just today, who influence change, motivate others, and propel their culture forward.


Influence change

Paying attention to environmental, social, and governance issues (ESG) is critical for all leaders. Leaders have a responsibility to be the voice of change and to dispel misconceptions around ESG investment. All leaders should be embracing sustainability if interested in long-term growth.


Because we’re talking about business returns here too, not ‘just’ becoming better global citizens –and all data points toward organisations which align their business strategy to sustainability reaping the rewards. Organisations with high ESG performance ratings enjoyed 3.7x higher average operating margins compared to lower ESG performers, and 2.6x higher annual average total returns for shareholders – put simply, sustainability is a genuine business strategy for creating long-term value and fostering company longevity.


And yet…a staggering 83% of Irish CEOs have experienced resistance to implementing ESG measures. And while sustainability and ESG might be classed as a top priority for leaders, are these good intentions resulting in urgently required actions? A recent BCG/MIT study found 90% of executives consider sustainability important, but only 60% of companies incorporate sustainability into their strategy, while a mere 25% have sustainability incorporated within their business mode.


What’s urgently required is a paradigm shift in leadership, with CEOs and senior leaders driving the sustainability agenda and ESG investment, not merely delegating it to sustainability officers. If there’s no buy-in from stakeholders, nothing changes – until it’s too late. Senior leaders need the support of stakeholders in order to drive the strategy of sustainability. And with only 24% of companies currently seeing a competitive advantage when it comes to sustainability, opportunities abound for the progressive leader to make their organisation’s sustainability strategy a competitive differentiator in a crowded market.


Motivate others

Put simply, a post pandemic reshuffle has occurred, with an increased need for embedded agility within businesses. But with agile adoption at 30% and hybrid work at 50%, at least 53% of employees see their manager as lacking the necessary skillset for managing employees in a remote or hybrid situation, and thus unable to lead their team(s) to success.


Because agile organisations require an environment of trust that doesn’t lend itself to traditional hierarchies, we’re seeing flatter organisations with less need for traditional management practices – but an increased need for genuine leadership skills. A paradigm shift is coming: away from the management problem of command and control, and towards the leadership challenge of freedom and trust – and how to create those conditions, and the environment, which empowers employees to do their best work.


Leaders who remain reactive rather than proactive cannot support and empower an evolving workforce. To adapt to a changed world where speed, agility and innovation rules, leaders must be equipped with new skills – to build trust, to get the most out of their teams, and to allow employees – who expect more meaning, choice, growth and autonomy at work – to self-direct and prosper.


Thus we arrive at the ‘hybrid paradox’: while in person connection is becoming less frequent, people skills have become more important than ever. Nuance, and the ability to understand nuance, has never been more important. Likewise the need for leaders who listen closely, show empathy, coach meaningfully, and communicate effectively in order to build a strong culture.



But it’s not enough to order employees to be “resilient” or “agile” – leaders must create an environment that stops overlooking structural issues. Building teams that can weather uncertainty and change requires creating systems for support and dialogue. Candour breaks, bringing in independent observers, story sharing, temperature checks and encouraging ownership are just some of the best practices leaders can use to build teams ranking high in candour, resourcefulness, compassion and humility.


The Great Resignation is going nowhere. And the bad news is: it could creep even higher. The changing expectations of today’s workforce means leaders must adapt their mindsets and look outside the box to find new ways of engaging employees, truly listening to what they want. Not just listening, but responding and acting.


The question for many leaders is how? Well, from everything we’ve seen and observed, the answer is an engaging culture grounded in learning. Specifically, a learning culture that affords opportunities for growth, one where employees are 5x more likely to say they are ‘happy at work’ and feel ‘more productive.’


But how do you create a learning culture? Primarily with two ingredients: 1) psychological safety, where people can speak up and challenge the status quo without fear, and 2) motivation and accountability, where we hold ourselves and each other accountable to meet demanding goals. Combine those ingredients with learning early and often, turning learning into a ritual, with leaders acting as coach and being coached by others, and we see organisations that have 40% higher employee engagement and retention, and are 52% more productive overall. It’s also worth mentioning that organisations which invest in leadership development are more likely to see leaders exhibit behaviours that foster psychological safety.


While 83% of executives agree a learning culture is ‘very important’ to achieving their business goals, 54% of executives who reported that a fully developed learning culture saw major improvements in customer experience as a result of business transformation. This figure can be contrasted with the 23% increase for those with less fully developed learning cultures. Nevertheless, for 68% of executives this remains a work in progress: only 27% of executives had fully implemented a learning culture in their own organisations, which is reflective of the mere 20% that classified it as ‘critical.’


That sense of belonging is vital: when employees feel their organisation is investing in them, they will naturally be more inclined to invest their energy in the company. Besides, when employees are actively upskilling, it helps the organisation benefit and grow – it’s a continuous double-benefit loop that helps drive employee retention and create a more successful business overall.


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