On today’s business battleground, companies can’t afford to maintain the traditional, hierarchical leadership model that has prevailed for so many years. Delegating decision-making power to a small group of individuals at the very top requires slowing down the pace so leadership can carefully weigh options and strategize the best course for all stakeholders. In the current climate, time is a luxury competitive companies can’t afford to waste.
Historically, leadership involved making high-level decisions that steered a company in whatever direction those at the top deemed most beneficial. At the bottom, employees executed the strategy passed along by leadership, and in the middle, managers assumed a quality assurance role, checking to make sure the work was sufficient to move the organization in the direction leadership wanted it to go.
This type of organization, however, is a slow, lumbering beast — and with the amount of competition in the modern marketplace, it’s likely to go extinct.
Instead, companies need to remain agile and flexible in order to compete. Leaders of the future must take the following steps to ensure their organizations stay relevant and can rapidly adapt to unforeseen changes in the market.
1. Augment internal data with outside insight.
Just as no man is an island, no company operates independently of its partners and competitors. Future leaders will break out of conventional decision-making and focus heavily on analytics that can position their organizations to truly capitalize on changing practices.
The book Outside Insight by Jorn Lyseggen, founder and CEO of Meltwater, details the value that can be gained by looking beyond a company’s internal data: “By systematically and rigorously analyzing the billions of data points produced on the open internet every day, the guesswork of today can be replaced by fact-based analytics that can identify trends and anticipate future developments. Conquering the wild jungle of external data, companies will become better at understanding their competitive landscape and where their industry is heading.”
Tomorrow’s leadership can’t (yet) predict the future, but with external data, they can see, think and plan further ahead than ever before.
2. Communicate a vision that inspires.
Leaders in the future will be visible and accessible, communicating to the rest of the company a vision to be carried out at all levels. Unlike many current corporate structures, where C-level executives are figureheads far removed from interactions with other employees, the next generation of leaders will be dedicated to inspiring and empowering people in every department and on every floor of their organization.
Instead of spending their time making decisions on a macro scale, leaders will invest the majority of their efforts in serving their employees and figuring out how to help them overcome the obstacles they face on a daily basis.
Employees will not only be the momentum behind a company, they’ll also be behind the steering wheel. As a result, different departments within a larger organization will be able to point themselves in the direction they need to go to best perform their function. If that direction changes, adjusting their course will be a simple matter within the department instead of a major shift in the entire thought process of the company.
3. Cultivate an empowering culture.
Intentionally creating a company culture that empowers individuals at every level of an organization to do their best work will be a major focus of effective future leaders. The rapid pace at which business moves will necessitate a flattening of the corporate ladder into a structure that places significant decision-making power into the hands of employees on the ground, in the thick of the action.
The most forward-thinking businesses will foster environments where employees can take chances without fear of punishment or penalty. Instead of trying to prevent mistakes at the cost of stifling experimentation and creativity, leadership will recognize the learning opportunity that mistakes can present and ensure employees are equipped to make decisions for themselves.
4. Incorporate a global worldview.
Part of the interconnectedness of the modern world means that, in addition to jostling for position on a more crowded field, future leaders will be globally minded. The growing prevalence of remote workforces will play a role in cultivating cultural empathy. In addition, future leaders will have to factor environmental and geopolitical considerations into their decisions.
One of the first lessons a young startup founder and entrepreneur must learn is how to relinquish decision-making power to other people. By the time a company has matured and that same leader is in a C-suite role, he or she may have forgotten this lesson. Leaders of the future will be effective not by virtue of the decisions they make, but through their capacity to encourage leadership growth in individuals from the top of an organization to the bottom.
This column was originally published on Forbes.com on November 6, 2017.