Do you know what behaviors employees expect from leaders? Perceptions about what makes leaders successful can inform development and talent management strategy.
by Ed Cohen
September 21, 2015
According to “The Global Report: Leadership Traits, Insights for Today, Pathway to the Future,” published in May, there are several behaviors professionals want their leaders to demonstrate today and in the next 10 years (Editor’s note: The authors wrote this report). However, these vary based on age and location. That shift makes sense as learning leaders should make it a best practice to customize leadership development programs and other talent management processes in an organization.
Today, most leaders lead across multiple generations and work globally, many without even realizing it. Customers are global, and even leaders employed by domestic companies often engage with people from different cultures daily. The study analyzed results from 2,800 professionals in 122 countries that crossed four generations, geographic regions and cultures to reveal similarities and key differences in thought around what behaviors promote leadership success.
The list of traits presented to study participants came from 2012’s Twenty Attributes from “Characteristics of an Admired Leader” in “The Leadership Challenge Workshop Deluxe Facilitator’s Guide Set” by James Kouzes and Barry Posner (Figure 1). Globally, across the four generations currently in the workforce, all chose forward-looking and inspiring as favored leader behaviors.
Beyond those two behaviors, most similarities exist among the Gen X, baby boomer and silent generations. Millennials are game changers. They share a desire for leaders to be intelligent with their Gen X colleagues and industrial colleagues, but they add ambitious and determined to their list of preferred behaviors.
Millennials Changing the Game
As the youngest and soon-to-be-largest generation in the workforce, millennials were born between 1980 and 2000. They witnessed the digital revolution, which made the world more accessible to all. Partly because of that, millennials agree that today’s leaders need to be inspiring and intelligent (Figure 2).
All but Eastern Europe and Oceania respondents indicate leaders should be ambitious. There is also consensus around being competent and determined. Some traits such as broad-minded were top picks in Eastern Europe and Middle East.
Preferences clearly shift from one culture or region to another, which is important to consider when developing leaders or when sending leaders to work in different destinations.
The survey intentionally does not define the traits list because cultural differences play a significant role in their interpretation. For example, travel from the U.S. to the Middle East and traits for this region put broad-minded in the top five.
This suggests the definition of broad-minded is not the same in the U.S. as it is in the Middle East. Hence, there is a need to define the behaviors according to the regions where they are selected and to incorporate these differences — at least an awareness of the differences — into leadership development.
Generational Portraits of Leadership
The survey asked, “How do you see the role of leadership changing in the next 10 years?” and received more than 2,000 written responses (Figure 3). A sample of those responses broken down by generation follows.
Millennials: This cohort believes leaders need to able to develop people capabilities in a fair and conscious manner, be authentic, inspiring and innovative. “It’s important that everyone is able to share their perspectives equally and that this gives the best opportunity for everyone to learn and feel open to express opinions with their leaders,” said respondent Ego Onwuka, who has lived in Sri Lanka, India, and currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.
“People will have more options and less attention span so leaders will need to inspire and captivate to win their attention,” said respondent Camilo Buitrago, who was born in Columbia, has lived in India and now calls Mexico home.
A professional born in Portugal and currently living in Angola wrote that in the future, “leaders will assume the role of leader coach to develop teams and individuals.”
Gen X: Members of this cohort agree that diversity, globalization, changing organizational structures and shifting capabilities are major challenges leaders face today. As the workforce evolves, leaders will have to adapt to facilitate positive change in their organizations. A professional born in Poland, residing in Singapore wrote, “Technology will advance communications so leaders will need to be savvy as they build their online voices.”
Respondent Michael Leeman, from Cape Town, South Africa, now lives in San Diego. “The first step would definitely be awareness — that there are differences, what the differences are, and the importance of these gaps,” he said. “For example, ambitious and determined are on the South Africa list but not on the U.S. list. Armed with this information, how would one prepare and acclimatize? The second step would have been to use some form of coaching to bridge the gap.”
Baby boomers: This group is currently the largest segment of the workforce. But with retirements happening at a pace of roughly 10,000 per day in the U.S. alone, soon millennials will surpass them. They believe leaders will need the ability to collaborate, to lead people interdependently and to promote knowledge and innovation. They view the future of leadership as more team-oriented. Future leaders will need to emphasize the importance of understanding and tolerance, while simultaneously stressing that hierarchical leadership will be obsolete.
Born in Japan and living in the U.S. one survey participant wrote, “Successful and respected leaders of the future will need to lead with integrity, agility, adaptability, innovation, and quickly build trust.” Alternatively, another participant born in the United Kingdom and residing in France wrote that “leadership will not change, the common elements will continue to be integrity, innovation, vision, decision-making, influencing and a global view.”
Hilary Wild disagrees. Born in the U.K., Wild has traveled and worked extensively in Europe, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia. She wrote that leaders will change dramatically.
“In my vision of the C-suite of tomorrow, or dare I say today, our leaders must communicate with clarity, collaborate with courage, and convene with competence,” she wrote. “Communication with clarity requires lucidity on the message, every message — which demands clarity of thought. Collaboration with courage can mean leaders have to listen more and recognize they do not have all the answers — it takes courage for leaders to acknowledge they don’t know. Convening with competence — bringing competence, in whatever form it is found, can enrich organizations, but someone has to convene the competence.”
Industrialists: Born between 1928 and 1945, the youngest industrialists are in their 70s, so most if not all will have retired by 2025. They have seen massive changes and shifts in organizational tools, culture and ways of working during their careers. According to them, leaders need to emphasize building relationships. Several identified ethics, a sense of responsibility and consciousness about leading people, the need to be passionate, have patience and the will to persevere as desirable.
They also recognize the need to lead globally.
One participant born in Australia and residing in Armenia wrote, “Leaders will need to have increased understanding of different cultures and behavior, be more inclusive, and show greater openness and involvement.”
A Need for Customization
Learning leaders should place a high priority on behaviors when crafting leadership and other development programs. Almost 50 percent of all expatriate assignments are not successful because of a leader’s inability to acclimate to behavioral differences.
Business is becoming more and more global, so customizing development to promote adaption to local cultures is the fastest way to increase the success rate.
Even when leaders are working within their own cultures or geographic regions, learning leaders should consider generational differences and integrate these into leadership development and coaching programs.
Both behavior and performance are needed for success today and in the future. But understanding the behaviors business professionals want their leaders to demonstrate is the first step in transitioning development from primarily one-size-fits-all, performance-based approaches to individualized development aligned to specific needs.
Through coaching as well as virtual and mobile learning strategies, we can customize learning more easily than ever before.
There is great value in integrating desired behaviors from across generations and parts of the world into these efforts. For instance, business development and marketing professionals constantly want to know how to relate to their stakeholders. Breaking down desired behaviors across many dimensions during learning programs can help inform emerging and more experienced leaders how to build enduring relationships.
This kind of information also can define leadership roles and inform leadership development strategy, reward systems and succession planning practices.
As the mass exodus of the baby boomers continues and Gen Xers and millennials take over organizations around the world, leaders will no longer be able to model their behaviors after predecessors. They will need to learn how their stakeholders want them to behave and then pave a new path for leadership, one that will forever change the way leaders will lead. Learning leaders need to be at the forefront of the shift.