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Ben Davern

Ben Davern

22nd Dec 2023

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Why These Three Critical Leadership Themes Will Shape 2024

As we enter 2024, leaders across all sectors are gearing up to face unprecedented challenges and embrace exciting opportunities. What it means to be a leader is continually evolving, and keeping your organisation ahead requires an acute understanding of emerging trends. Based on research over the last 12 months, this article delves into the top three leadership themes expected to shape the business world in 2024.

 1.Gaining from Disruption

While resilience was a major theme throughout the pandemic, and 2022 was something of a transition year – with a bit of a resilience hangover – 2023 was the year leaders began to move beyond resilience. In his 2023 book Fortitude, National Leadership Conference keynote speaker Bruce Daisley called out the “myth of resilience,” while Ade McCormack lead sessions at the Best Managed Companies Symposium and the People Strategy Network on how leaders must push their organisations to become “super-resilient,” which draws heavily on Nassim Taleb’s concept of “antifragility.” Regardless of the terminology, 2024 looks set to be the year when leaders fully move beyond resilience and push their organisational mindset from being reactive – and merely surviving/withstanding – to being proactive…where their organisations actually gain from threats, challenges and disruption.

Pushing their organisations to become more agile and customer-centric while instilling a culture of innovation and experimentation, leaders must turn threats and challenges into opportunities for growth and competitive differentiation. Better prediction methods and ability to manage risk are vital, with leaders having one eye on the next quarter and one eye on the next ten years. Internal digital transformation efforts must shift from tech infrastructure investment to value realisation, with all technology strategies and investments – be it cloud, AI, data analytics, etc – tailored towards increasing organisational agility, innovation, customer-centricity and improving the customer experience in order to achieve long-term competitiveness, sustainable growth and profitability.

But this goes beyond internal efforts, as the unceasing disruption affects all areas of the business environment. For example, leaders at all levels must think differently about the choices they make and their organisation’s environmental impact in a more ethical and climate conscious society. The challenge here is twofold – not only remaining compliant and responding to increased stakeholder pressure to meet a ‘higher bottom line,’ but also proactively seeking out opportunities to ‘take the lead’ and make sustainability strategies a key differentiator in an increasingly crowded market. At the NLC, David McRedmond spoke about An Post’s journey in making sustainability a core aspect of their business while maximising business returns, and the final Senior Leaders Breakfast Briefing focused on unlocking the potential of Cleantech, an industry already seeing an annual expenditure of $6.5 trillion and which McKinsey predicts will rise to $275 trillion by 2050.

Governance issues are likely to continue being a major cause of disruption. 2023 saw governance crises at RTE and OpenAI, although in other ways no company gained more from disruption than OpenAI throughout the year. Nevertheless, despite Sam Altman’s return as CEO of OpenAI and a new board in place, don’t expect the conversations around governance to go away as main investor Microsoft’s influence grows and OpenAI pulls further away from its non-profit roots and seemingly down a more commercial path.

But the key leadership challenge for all leaders in 2024 will surely be AI. While OpenAI showed how to win big in this space from a product standpoint, and IBM Ireland GM Deborah Threadgold offered a roadmap for AI success that delivers productivity gains for workplace culture, this is a multifaceted issue: workers fear displacement, commentators have predicted increased economic inequality, urgent upskilling has been called for, ethical challenges abound, plus legislators are struggling to draw up regulation that promotes innovation rather than inhibits it…these are just some of the challenges leaders will have to contend with in 2024 and beyond. The pressing need to balance opportunities, threats, risk and governance, and to understand the implications for your organisation has lead IMI to create its AI for Senior Leaders programme.

2023 was the year leaders stopped patting themselves on the back for how resilient they are. 2024 must be the year that leaders start gaining from disruption, as the best organisations are already doing.

2. Innovation Through Diversity

The world we live in no longer permits ‘once-a-year’ planning – it demands continuous adaption, iteration and innovation. Thankfully there seems to be some recognition of this fact, as 2023 saw a significant increase in demand for IMI’s Strategy & Innovation diploma. Leaders are looking for new tools and techniques to help innovate – and why wouldn’t they? Every day leaders are told “be more innovative! Do more innovation! Foster a culture of innovation!” – as if it was akin to snapping your fingers. As if most organisations didn’t operate within highly regulated environments. As if budgets didn’t exist. And all the other red tape and bureaucracy and approval meetings and the other countless obstacles that get in the way of innovation.

So how can leaders foster a culture of innovation in 2024? Firstly, the clue is in the name: don’t focus on the technology, focus on the culture. Leaders must foster an environment of psychological safety where people feel accepted and included, but also challenged – and where they feel safe to challenge back. In 2024, leaders must get as many different voices, different backgrounds, different problem-solving approaches in the same room – because diversity is the lifeblood of innovation.

Research from the Harvard Business Review demonstrates that firms with higher gender diversity at the senior level are more profitable, more socially responsible, and provide higher-quality customer experiences, along with being more open to change and tending to focus on research and development rather than mergers and acquisitions. Inclusive cultures are 8x more likely to achieve better business outcomes, 6x more likely to be innovative and agile, and 3x as likely to be high-performing. Diversifying the customer base and improving access to products/services for underserved communities also opens up commercial opportunities to sell into new and untapped markets.

But it’s important to remember there are different types of diversity. At a recent Senior Leaders Breakfast Briefing, Stefanie Teichmann mentioned “the most important type of diversity is diversity of thought and intellect.” Which ties into something Roger Delves touched on at a recent Mini-Masterclass; that diversity, and inclusivity, doesn’t just relate to gender or ethnicity or sexual orientation – a truly diverse organisation will make people of all ages, personality types, mindsets, those with different ways of approaching problems – even different ways of approaching the world – feel accepted, included, and safe to both challenge and be challenged. Far from being about quotas or box ticking, a truly diverse organisation displays genuine diversity of thought and richness of intellectual outlook.

Diversity is the starting point for innovation, but it ends with transformational change – and that begins at the leadership level. The most innovative organisations will be focusing on this for 2024.

3. Building Capabilities for High Performance

The selection, education and training of people for high-performance is set to become paramount in 2024, particularly in equipping high-performing teams that can make decisions amid uncertainty and complexity while managing various polarities. Ronan O’Gara was involved a fascinating fireside at the NLC on the topic, while Ade McCormack spoke about building the Cognitive Athlete and Ruth Gotian spoke about emulating the 1% of extreme high-achievers. Indeed, the emphasis on high-performance and high-performing teams permeated every aspect of the culture, including at the cinema with the blockbuster Oppenheimer.

While the film centres around a lone genius building the Atomic bomb, project success was nevertheless predicated on strong leadership, excellent project management and fantastic organisational structure/design. Empowered by a supportive leadership who provided both resources and autonomy, high-performing teams made up of cognitively diverse individuals acted with great speed and efficiency to innovate under conditions of extreme stress and uncertainty. These elements were present not only in the Manhattan Project of the 40s but other megaproject successes like ICBMs of the 50s and Apollo in the 60s – one wonders how these learnings can be applied to current challenges such as the integration of AI and digital technologies into the workplace.

The workplace itself is set to remain a key challenge in 2024, as leaders grapple with changes in employee expectations and ongoing hybrid challenges. Employees demand ever greater flexibility, yet under remote conditions misalignment can creep in, and it’s often harder for dispersed employees to connect with an organisation’s mission, vision and values. Leaders must create an environment where people feel treated like people, where they feel accepted and included, but where they can do their best work and perform at the highest calibre. Coaching, inclusivity and empathy have become increasingly important aspects of leadership in recent years, but leaders must not forget the importance of building a high-performance and high-output culture.

In 2024, leaders committed to building the future must be ruthless in surrounding themselves with people equally committed to building the future. Leaders must show commitment to their people, but their people must show commitment to the mission, vision and values of their organisation. It’s the responsibility of leaders to create and foster that environment where employees flourish – but leaders also have a responsibility to pick their best starting fifteen. And that moves into the other side of leadership. Difficult conversations. Tough choices. A level of sacrifice that seems inhumane to the average person. The best leaders will do whatever it takes to do right by their people, their team, their organisation, their shareholders and their customers. Leaders must not only be equipped to make decisions amidst uncertainty and complexity, they must also empower their team to do the same.

This is how you create a high-performance culture where people don’t wake up in the morning and say, “I have to go to work,” – instead they say, “I get to go to work.”

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