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'I think I'll manage'

As featured in the Retail Talent Blog in Retail Times - August 2012

The Grocer last week reported that the BRC has unveiled a new leadership team, which includes KPMG’s head of retail, Helen Dickinson, who will take over from Stephen Robertson as BRC’s director general when he departs at the end of the year, and Ian Cheshire, who becomes the new chairman on 1st October. Dickinson commented on her new challenge, saying:

“Against the current economic backdrop, the BRC’s work in supporting retailers to develop their businesses and tackling the challenges that they, and the sector, face is more crucial than ever…”

This news, and Dickinson’s comment, got me thinking about leadership in the current climate, and why people are driven to become leaders at work? Some do it because they want to change things for the better. Others want their voice to be heard, to influence outcomes. And there are people who step forward because they are frustrated – they believe they could do it better than the current crop of managers. At Wickland Westcott, we foresee a problem on the horizon – in these hard times, will anyone have the desire to become a leader anymore?

Leaders of today have greater pressure on their performance than ever before. Their actions are subject to higher levels of scrutiny (the ‘shareholder spring’ being one facet of this), they have fewer resources at their disposal due to delayering and ever leaner structures, and they face intense market volatility making planning fraught with difficulty. Add into this mix, suffocating employment law, as well as the growing expectation that managers should take the blame for mistakes beneath them, and the leadership proposition no longer looks particularly appetising.

The growth of technology, in particular the increasing interdependence of systems, mean that gremlins – usually entirely invisible to the leader - can surface in a very public way, leading to accusations that the boss was asleep at the wheel. But at least you get well paid, right? Well, maybe not for much longer. Even the financial rewards may lose their shimmer amid the crass but growing social/political dynamic which equates wealth with evil.

Then factor in demographic trends. Workplaces are increasingly made up of Generation X and Generation Y employees. The former - loosely those born between ’65 and ’79 - are stereotypically transient, pragmatic, competent, individuals who are suspicious of corporate motives, and unwilling to devote their lives to one business. Their focus is typically more upon work-life balance. How many of these people really want the long, grinding hours that still typify most senior jobs (whatever anyone says)?

Generation Y (loosely, those born in the ‘80s) are variously described as self-confident, goal-orientated individuals with a strong desire to work collectively. Technologically literate, money is not usually a motivator for them, meaning their drivers are frequently around discovering interesting and fundamentally satisfying, soul-nourishing work. Why would these people want the hassle of leadership?

So, organisations face a challenge. Who will lead them tomorrow? In my opinion, the hope lies with Generation Z – digital natives born in to a totally connected, post-modern, post 9/11 world characterised by upheaval, recession, and a clear awareness of the consequences of failure, whether economic or environmental. Generation Z should bring through a cadre of connected, globally aware people able to stand on their own two feet and take responsibility for others. The problem is that the oldest of them is now only 12 years old.

In the meantime, businesses should try and motivate employees that show leadership potential to give it a go. Sometimes those who lack the confidence can make the best leaders (and vice versa, of course), so if there is someone in your operation whom you think can manage, or better still lead, give them your support, and a nudge.

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